Former Md. police chief sentenced to life for arsons, some targeting other LEOs
The ex-Laurel police chief kept on his computer a coded list of people he felt had slighted him, researched their properties and set fires
By Alex Mann
LAUREL, Md. — The former Laurel police chief accused in a string of arsons around Maryland was sentenced Tuesday to life in prison for the fires he set in Howard County.
Howard Circuit Judge Richard S. Bernhardt gave David Michael Crawford, 71, consecutive life sentences plus 75 years in prison. Imposing a total of eight life sentences, Bernhardt ruled that Crawford could serve six of them at the same time.
“Arsons destroy persons,” Bernhardt said.
In March, a jury found Crawford guilty of eight counts of attempted first-degree murder — one charge for each of the people home during fires he set to houses in Elkridge and Ellicott City — and three counts of first-degree arson and one count of malicious burning.
In sum, authorities say, Crawford is responsible for setting a dozen fires in six counties from 2011 to 2020.
At trial in March, prosecutors presented evidence from all 12 fires to show his pattern: Crawford kept on his computer a coded list of people he felt had slighted him in matters personal or professional, researched their properties and put flame to them under the cover of darkness — sometimes more than once.
The victims include a former Laurel official, three former law enforcement officials including a former Laurel police chief, two relatives, two of Crawford's former physicians and a resident in his neighborhood.
In Howard County, Crawford set his chiropractors’ house ablaze while the doctors, their children and a relative were home. He also twice ignited the home of a woman whom he worked with on a school redistricting initiative, with one of the fires taking place when she, her husband and daughter were home. He also scorched a car outside of the house of a nonprofit director Crawford’s wife butted heads with.
“Crawford is someone who lacks basic humanity,” Howard County State’s Attorney Rich Gibson told reporters after Tuesday’s hearing, calling the sentence “appropriate.”
Despite the jury’s verdict, Crawford’s attorney, Robert Bonsib, said Tuesday that his client maintains his innocence and plans to appeal.
“It’s a sad ending for Mr. Crawford,” Bonsib told reporters.
Several of Crawford’s victims gave impact statements Tuesday, saying his actions shattered the sense of safety they once felt in their own homes and left them with lasting mental health problems.
Crawford put flame to Scott and Evelyn Henderson’s Ellicott City home in 2017 when the couple, their younger daughter and dog were there. The fire forced them into temporary housing and they took out another mortgage to build their dream house as a way to heal. About two weeks before they were to move into the remodeled house, Crawford burned it to the ground.
Quinn Henderson was recovering from substantial leg surgeries in high school when Crawford lit the house on fire, with her inside. She was able to limp out with her parents, but rushed back into the burning home to rescue the family’s beloved dog “Scooby.”
“Before [Crawford] single-handedly ruined my life with no remorse, I was innocent,” Quinn Henderson, now 22, said in court. “I thought this world was a beautiful place and that evil people only existed in movies.”
She went on to describe her struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological disorders that yielded suicidal ideation and forced her to finish high school from home. Her parents and older sister echoed that deep emotional toll and detailed the financial hardship caused by the fires. They also spoke of mementos lost to the flames.
“Flames are indiscriminate. They take what they want and leave what you don’t,” Evelyn Henderson testified. “And the totems that remind you who you were, who you are, and who you hope to be: These vanish. A polaroid picture of a tow-headed baby under an Ocean City sun. Gone.”
“A storybook,” Henderson continued, “its order and cadence of one-syllable words, long since memorized, obligatory reading after baths and bad dreams. Gone. A bin of mismatched barrettes. Gone. Bright bits of candy-colored plastic I once used to to pin back precious, cornsilk soft wisps of baby curls. Gone.”
Bernhardt read aloud segments of the impact statements, submitted in writing ahead of the court date, that moved him before handing down the sentence.
“Arson,” the judge said, “is a personalized crime.”
He ordered Crawford pay almost $1.2 million in restitution to insurance companies that covered most, but not all, of the fires’ damage.
Saying he was satisfied the state’s case supported the jury’s verdict, Bernhardt highlighted pieces of evidence he found “extremely disturbing.“
Crawford purchased a vanity license plate that read “SURECAN,” which was the brand of gas canister that investigators found scores of in his garage. Surveillance footage for several of the fires displayed at trial showed a man in a hooded sweatshirt walk up to the target properties carrying cans of gas, pouring the liquid out and then igniting it.
After fires, Crawford contacted his victims under the guise of a concerned neighbor or relative. Sometimes, he offered to help investigate or use connections from his decades in law enforcement.
“This need to contact persons after these houses have been burned, it’s a need to revel in the pain,” Bernhardt said.
It took investigators years to recognize a connection between the blazes spanning much of central Maryland: All were set with gasoline and occurred between 1 and 4:30 a.m. All but one began in a driveway. All of the victims, it turned out, had some type of connection to Crawford, even if some seemed insignificant.
Police arrested him in March 2021.
Cases against Crawford are pending in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. In Frederick County, he entered an Alford plea — maintaining his innocence but acknowledging the state had enough evidence to convict — and got sentenced to 20 years in prison, with all but 18 months suspended. He was credited for already having served that time before trial.
Labeling him a “danger to every single person” if released, Howard County Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Patricia Cecil suggested Crawford “should spend the rest of his natural life in prison.”
A pre-sentence investigation set the guidelines for Crawford’s punishment at 85 to 130 years.
Bonsib asked Bernhardt to ignore the attempted murder convictions and impose a sentence under the guidelines for three arson convictions, 12 to 28 years, saying his client’s crimes only caused property damage. He also noted Crawford’s advanced age and touted his career in law enforcement.
“Mr. Crawford has done some good things in his life,” Bonsib said. “The jury has decided he has done some bad things.”
After penning a 22-page letter to the judge, Crawford accepted an opportunity to speak in court.
“This has been quite the ordeal for everyone involved, especially for the victims and their families,” he said, before addressing comments about faith in God to a couple whose home he burned twice.
Bernhardt granted a request from Crawford’s attorney to seal the letter he submitted, citing information about children within. But the judge said Crawford described his legacy as one of being devoted to helping others, both at home and in law enforcement.
“To the extent that was his legacy, it’s gone now,” Bernhardt said. “He’s been described as a monster here today, and that’s the legacy I believe will follow him.”