Author(s): Scott Sutherland. Published on July 1, 2017.

Burnin' Love

A new book details a rural Virginia arson spree and the damaged relationship that fueled it

BY SCOTT SUTHERLAND

How far would you go in the name of love?

If you were Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick, you’d turn to arson to keep the flame alive. From November 2012 until their arrest on April 1, 2013, the couple set more than 60 fires up and down Accomack County on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, provoking fear and anger among residents and creating a media sensation unrivaled in the region’s long history.

Smith’s and Bundick’s exploits, their troubled relationship that fueled the destruction, and the efforts of authorities to catch the culprits are the subjects of American Fire, a new book scheduled for publication in July by Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse. Hesse spent more than two years researching the true-crime tale, interviewing friends and relatives of the couple, volunteer firefighters, investigators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and Charlie Smith himself—Bundick never agreed to talk. Despite the book’s quirks—there are moments when Hesse can be casual to the point of flip—American Fire manages to reconstruct the detailed and compelling human story behind the fires, providing an essential why to the where, when, what, and how.

Smith and Bundick had spent most of their lives on the Eastern Shore, where they struggled to piece together livelihoods and an unlikely relationship. Rural decline serves as a fitting backdrop for Hesse’s story; in November 2012, she writes, “the Eastern Shore of Virginia was old. It was long. It was isolated. It was emptying of people but full of abandoned houses.” Smith and Bundick weren’t picky: chicken coops, empty farmhouses, and shuttered resorts were among the properties targeted, and the pace of the fires soon made the hunt for the Accomack arsonist the biggest story the Eastern Shore had ever witnessed. Local volunteer firefighters—Smith had been a member of his town’s fire department—responded to 86 fires over that period, the vast majority of them arson, and Hesse captures the exhaustion and exasperation of fire and law enforcement authorities pushed to their limits by an elusive quarry.

Some fire professionals may be left wanting more detail on arson science or on the fire investigations, but Hesse’s aim is to tell a more human-centric tale. One of the book’s most fascinating set pieces describes a geographic profiling specialist named Isaac Van Patten, who’s brought in to assist with the investigation. By mapping the locations of crimes, the theory goes, you map a criminal’s mind. Van Patten’s data analysis produced a map identifying a community he thought investigators should canvas as the likely home or workplace of the arsonist. The bulls-eye was the intersection of two streets. The white ranch house where Charlie and Tonya lived was five houses away from the bulls-eye.

Compared to that kind of logic and precision, the rationale for why Smith and Bundick launched their spree can seem like flailing madness. But calculated destruction has a logic all its own, and the Accomack arsonists found their rationale in the most intimate details of their relationship. “The trouble with being the type of person who would do anything for love was that you would do anything for love,” Hesse writes. What “anything” might include, though, no logic or science can ever hope to explain.

SCOTT SUTHERLAND is executive editor for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Liveright Publishing