One of Virginia’s worst serial arsonists eluded a massive police hunt for five months, setting nearly 80 fires on the Eastern Shore. Following night after night of futility, authorities finally reported a break Monday: They say they caught him in the act.
A surveillance team watched as the man torched an abandoned home in Accomack County and then escaped in a gold minivan, police said. The stop and the arrests that followed didn’t put an end to the mystery for a frightened community, but only raised the question of why.
Police said the man who set the fire was Charles Smith III, 38, who friends said was a former captain with a volunteer fire department in Accomack County. His girlfriend, Tonya Bundick, 40, was driving the getaway car, police said.
The arrests shocked friends and neighbors, who said the couple did not fit the portrait of serial arsonists. They lived in a single-family home, and Smith had an auto body shop in Tasley, Va. Bundick, who has two school-age children, ran a small clothing shop.
“I don’t think there’s anybody that doesn’t know them,” said Erik Redmond, an acquaintance and a medic in a local fire department. “They were a very social couple. They were always out in all the bars. ... It’s not like they were reclusive.”
Redmond said one of his co-workers saw Bundick dressed as the Easter Bunny for a Sunday event — the same day an abandoned two-story building was torched in the town of Accomac.
For residents of the Eastern Shore, apprehension grew as fires were set roughly every other night since mid-November. The arsonist appeared to know what he was doing: Virginia State Police said the fires have been set in ways that they go undetected for an hour or two, and he took care to set them in areas with multiple escape routes and at random locations around the county. Residents had no idea what might be lit ablaze next.
State police officials declined to discuss a possible motive for the arsons, which have targeted abandoned and vacant buildings up and down the county, but said evidence collected from the scenes and statements made by the couple implicated them.