By Amy Silva, Tynisa Trapps and Kate Springle
COLLEGE PARK – Felony charges have been dropped for all four University of Maryland student athletes arrested in connection with the fires set in College Park following the Terps’ Final Four basketball loss.
“We determined that none of the cases merited felony prosecution,” said Mark Spencer, Prince George’s County deputy state’s attorney.
Paula Burr, a spokeswoman for the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney’s Office, added that neither felony nor misdemeanor malicious burning charges could be substantiated by the evidence collected from the March 31 rampage, in which several thousand people set about 60 fires in College Park neighborhoods.
“I don’t believe that there was any malicious intent towards anything or anybody,” concurred Richard Finci, an attorney for 20-year-old Jeremy Duncan, one of the four students charged.
The dismissal of the felony first-degree malicious burning charge means that the university won’t take any punitive action, such as suspension or expulsion against the four, said John Zacker, university director of student discipline.
However, each of the students still faces court time this summer for the remaining misdemeanor charges: One count of disorderly conduct, one count of disturbing the peace and five counts of reckless endangerment, Burr said. If convicted of all those charges, each could receive up to 25 years and 90 days in prison and/or $26,000 in fines, according to the state’s attorney’s office.
The other three charged along with Duncan were Dawn Christensen, 19, Mark Mansueto, 20, and Joshua Weidman, 22. Weidman is co-captain of the varsity wrestling team, and Duncan and Mansueto are his teammates. Christensen is a field hockey player. A Prince George’s County Police Department spokesman, Cpl. Joe Merkel, said all four arrests developed from tips to police. He added the police investigation is still open, but tips are coming in less frequently now.
According to accounts of friends of those arrested and their lawyers, the four are trying to keep their lives together as they await their court dates.
“He’s doing the best he can to keep his grades up and continue working out like he’s supposed to,” said Finci, of Duncan.
For Weidman at least, it will be a huge relief if he finds out if he’ll be able to wrestle again next year, said a longtime friend. “Josh is a really fierce competitor, and I know it would really crush him if he wasn’t able to wrestle here next year,” said Todd Ainsworth, a 20-year-old University of Maryland baseball player.
The field hockey coach declined to comment, and the wrestling coach did not return numerous phone calls.
But Rob Mullens, University of Maryland senior associate athletic director, released the following statement in reference to the status of the four athletes: “We are in the process of reviewing the situation, given the latest information. As of right now they remain suspended from their respective teams.”
Ainsworth, who grew up with Weidman in Hershey, Pa., said he’s not surprised the four arrested were prominent athletes. “When they [officials] make an example, they want to make an example of someone well known,” he said.
Maj. Cathy Atwell, operations bureau commander for the University of Maryland Police Department, said the athletes were not singled out.
“When the police department can identify people involved in a crime, then we will charge those individuals,” Atwell said. “Not every car who speeds gets a ticket. Life isn’t fair.”
Finci said the fact that the students weren’t arrested on the spot may become a consideration at trial.
“I think from a legal perspective, it’s more a question of whether a crime was actually committed,” Finci said. “If the officers witnessed a crime in their presence, they’re supposed to do something about it.”
The officers who witnessed the event have fallen under attack from College Park Mayor Michael Jacobs.
“The reality is, no one anticipated the degree to which these incidents evolved,” Jacobs said. “However, the police response was unnecessarily slow, and in part contributed to the extent of the damage that was done.”
The 60 fires set by several thousand people caused about $300,000 in damage to Comcast cable lines, said Doug McKenzie, Comcast Prince George’s County vice president and general manager.
Comcast has not made a final determination as to whether to take legal action. The damaged fiber trunk cable line took more than 18 hours to repair, but service was back up the same day, McKenzie said.
Lt. Peter White, Prince George’s County Police Department citizens services manager, said the situation was handled as well as possible under the circumstances.
“No matter how much planning you do, you have to expect the unexpected, and we did the best we could under the circumstances with the knowledge we had at the time,” White said. “We never expected there to be 60 fires. You can only expand your manpower so thin.”
Mark Brady, Prince George’s County Fire Department spokesman, said police and fire officials were in the immediate area when the televised game let out, and about 45 firefighters and rescue personnel responded to the fires.