Arson Suspect Terrorized OC In Late 1980s

OCEAN CITY – An Ocean City man, who over 20 years ago went on an arson spree throughout the resort causing millions of dollars of damage, was allegedly up to his old tricks last week when he set fire to a brick office building.

John Edward Cropper, 45, was arrested last Saturday on arson, malicious destruction of property and trespassing charges after resort police and fire investigators were able to link him to a fire in the interior of the brick office building at the Cropper Concrete plant on 1st Street and the bay. Cropper, who is apparently no relation to the owners of the iconic concrete plant, is well known to those who have been around the resort area for a couple of decades for his arson spree in November and December 1986 that included at least six known major fires causing millions of dollars in damage and keeping an entire town of edge for several weeks.

Shortly after 10 a.m. last Saturday, an Ocean City Fire Marshal’s Office deputy responded to the concrete plant for a reported fire that was deemed suspicious in nature. The deputy met with an Ocean City police officer who told him he had stopped an individual in the area about 20 minutes earlier, later identified as Cropper, who said he was looking for his lost dog. The officer said Cropper had an odor of gasoline or lighter fluid on his person, but after conducting a brief field interview, he was allowed to go.

After that brief encounter, the officers on the scene detected the odor of something burning. They entered the concrete plant property through an unsecured gate and located two small fires inside a brick office building. The officers were able to quickly extinguish the fires and began to search around the property. During the search, they observed Cropper walking back and forth on the sidewalk adjacent to the property. He was calling his dog and each time he called, the dog returned. After the officers extinguished the fire, they detained Cropper until the fire marshal’s office deputy arrived.

The deputy entered the structure and quickly noticed the strong odor of a flammable liquid in the area where the fires were extinguished. The building was unoccupied at the time and the power to the facility had been turned off, leading the fire detective to believe there was no accidental ignition source for the fires and, therefore, determine the fires had been set on purpose.

When the fire detective interviewed Cropper, who had been detained by police on the scene, he noticed a strong odor of a flammable liquid on his person consistent with the odor he discovered at the scene of the fire. According to police reports, Cropper said he had been home all day and the only time he came near the concrete plant was when he was looking for his dog, which was when the officer made initial contact with him. He explained he had earlier refilled a kerosene heater at his residence, which explained his odor.

The fire detective than interviewed Cropper’s wife, who corroborated much of her husband’s story including the kerosene heater and walking the dog. However, when the detective interviewed Cropper a second time, he asked the suspect to show him the soles of his boots. On the soles was a combination of white and brown mud consistent with the grounds of the concrete plant. When asked again if he had been on the concrete plant property, Cropper this time admitted he had entered the property earlier in the day, climbing under a fence to go fishing.

When pressed on the issue, Cropper said he did walk around the property and the buildings, but never went inside. Cropper then allegedly told the detective he had nothing to do with the fire, which perplexed the detective because he had never told Cropper anything about investigating a fire. When the detective questioned Cropper about his statements, the suspect said with his known past history, he knew it couldn’t be about anything else, according to police reports.

The detectives said he knew all about Cropper’s “history” and his prior convictions, but the suspect continued to deny any involvement in the two fires in the office building.

Cropper’s latest alleged arson came over two decades after he went on a fire-starting spree in November and December 1986, during which he set fire to at least five homes and apartment buildings. He was finally arrested in April 2007 and charged with arson in six major fires causing millions of dollars in damage, although no injuries were reported.

Cropper was charged with arson for setting six fires in 1986 including the Ocean Village apartments on 78th Street on Nov. 5, 1986; a home at 77th Street on Nov. 7; a home at 73rd Street on Nov. 11; and a residence on 74th Street on Nov. 12. After setting four fires in seven days, Cropper’s spree inexplicably stopped for a month, leading investigators to believe it was over, but Cropper was at it again with a fire at the Four Winds apartments on Dec. 12, 1986 followed by another fire at a residence on 71st Street on Dec. 26.

During a preliminary hearing in June 1987, it was revealed Cropper had confessed to a Maryland State Police trooper and Sgt. Sam Villani, who was then a fire/arson investigator with the Fire Marshal’s Office that he had set the fires because he was “bored and lonely,” according to reports.

Cropper, a 1983 graduate of Stephen Decatur, had been a fire cadet in high school and was a probationary member of the Ocean City Volunteer Fire Company for about a year when the arson spree began.

In an emergency session in 1987, the Ocean City Council approved a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the arsonist. A short time later, the State Fire Marshal’s Office matched the town’s offer, adding $5,000 of its own to the reward money.

He was arrested in April 1987 after detectives had compiled enough evidence to charge him for at least six of the blazes in the resort during the time frame. In October 2007, Cropper pleaded guilty but not criminally responsible to setting five fires in Ocean City.

At his trial, the state psychiatrist’s pyromania diagnosis was conflicted with the diagnosis of the prosecution’s psychiatrist, who after examining Cropper, determined he was not suffering from a disorder and was capable of understanding the proceedings and participating in his own defense.

The plea was accepted by Judge Dale Cathell based on a diagnosis from state forensic psychiatrist that Cropper suffered from pyromania, a disorder characterized by an intense fascination with setting fires. Cropper was sent to the Clifton Perkins State Psychiatric Hospital in Jessup where he was supposed to remain indefinitely until such time as he was cured of the disorder and doctors were of the opinion he would no longer be a threat to himself or others. It is unclear from reports of the era just how long Cropper spent at the state psychiatric hospital.