OCEAN CITY — An Ocean City man faces first-degree arson and other serious charges this week after allegedly setting a downtown cottage on fire in early March.
Around 12:35 a.m. on March 11, the Ocean City Fire Department was dispatched to a residence at 19 St. Louis Ave. for a reported house fire. First-arriving crews observed a two-story, wood-frame single-family dwelling with first burning throughout the first floor and portions of the second floor. The building was unoccupied at the time of the fire and not injuries were reported for firefighters or civilians.
Fire crews remained on scene for several hours extinguishing hot spots within the structure’s floors and walls. The cottage, one of many similar along the same stretch of St. Louis Ave. south of First Street, was deemed a total loss and ultimately torn down. The property owner later had the burned cottage demolished along with an adjacent cottage that suffered extensive damage including heat damage and melted siding. Another cottage on the opposite side also suffered damage, but the property owner, who owned all three, is repairing that structure.
An Ocean City Deputy Fire Marshal completed an origin and cause investigation and classified the cause of the fire as incendiary. It was determined the fire started in a room on the south side of the structure previously used as laundry room, which had an exterior door accessing the alley to the south, a piece of evidence that would later prove important. The Fire Marshal’s Office determined the most probable ignition scenario was the ignition of combustible materials inside the room ignited by an unknown and no longer present ignition source.
The first OCPD officer on the scene observed three individuals including Matthew Raymond Doerr, 50, of Ocean City, across the street from the fire scene in the front yard of 16 St. Louis Ave. During an initial interview, Doerr told police he and his roommate had gone outside to smoke a cigarette and observed the fire. Doerr said he used his cellphone to call 911. Ocean City dispatchers later confirmed Doerr had placed the initial 911 call reporting the fire.
The OCPD officer observed footage from the city-owned surveillance camera that provided a view of that portion of St. Louis Avenue including the alley and the residence at 19 St. Louis Ave. The video surveillance provided a timeline of events of about 25 minutes during which an unknown individual in dark clothes including possibly a green camouflage jacket enters the alley adjacent to 17 St. Louis Ave. and re-emerges a short time later.
Less than a minute after the individual emerged from the alley, the glare from the fire was initially seen. When the OCPD officer interviewed Doerr just after the fire, he was wearing a green camouflage fleece jacket.
Over the course of the next few weeks, investigators canvassed the neighborhood seeking more information about the fire and developed a witness who had been with Doerr and his roommate just prior to the fire back on March 11. The witness said he had been sitting on the porch at 17 St. Louis Ave. with Doerr and his roommate smoking cigarettes and drinking when the discussion came around to the ongoing construction in the area and pending demolition of some of the older cottages. The witness said Doerr began “making crazy comments” and indicated he wanted to do “something reckless” like “burning a house down,” according to charging documents.
The witness said he became uneasy with the conversation and went inside to use the restroom. When the witness returned to the porch, Doerr was gone and when he asked the roommate where Doerr had gone, the roommate replied “don’t worry about it,” according to charging documents.
Having grown more uneasy, the witness decided to walk to a nearby convenience store. The witness told investigators he saw an unknown individual exit the alley adjacent to 17 St. Louis Ave. in the area where the fire ultimately originated.
The witness told police Doerr caught up to him a short time later on his walk to the convenience store and allegedly asked if “we were cool,” and later asked “you didn’t see anything right?” according to charging documents.
Based on the video evidence and witness testimony, Doerr was arrested last week and charged with two counts of first-degree arson, second-degree arson, home invasion, first-degree malicious burning and malicious destruction of property. At a bail review hearing last Friday, Doerr was ordered to be held on a $500,000 bond. A preliminary hearing is set for May 13.
The fire at 19 St. Louis Ave. on March 11 was the most recent in a string of similar fires over the last year or so, dating back to a major fire last winter at the former de Lazy Lizard Brew Pub site and a couple more at private residences in the area.
At this point, there is no obvious connection between the fires, but Communications Manager Jessica Waters on Wednesday confirmed the other blazes are still under investigation.
“The Fire Marshal’s Office is continuing to examine any possible connection between the fire at 19 St. Louis Ave. and previous fires in downtown Ocean City and the surrounding area,” she said. “At this time, no connection is apparent, but any developing leads will be investigated.”