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Lesbian couple assails ongoing investigation into 2021 firebombing of their Md. home

Probe into possible hate crime ‘riddled with missteps, incompetence’

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The two-story house at 16 Marquis Dr. was destroyed in a 2021 firebombing that remains unsolved.

In a little-noticed development, an unidentified suspect or suspects used what investigators believe to be an “improvised incendiary device” to start a fire around 1 a.m. on April 1, 2021, that destroyed the Gaithersburg, Md. home of a lesbian couple and their two young children.

The couple, who along with their children were away on vacation at the time of the fire, say they initially chose not to go public about the incident out of fear for their safety in what they and investigators say could have been an attempt to target their family because of their sexual orientation as a hate crime.

Although the fire was reported by local Montgomery County news publications at the time it occurred, none of the publications reported the home was owned and occupied by a married lesbian couple.

“We’re generally very private people,” Alyson Kozma, one of the two women, told the Washington Blade. “But I think more importantly, we had some significant security concerns,” Kozma said.

Among other things, a bomb squad investigator with the Montgomery County Department of Fire and Rescue Services (MCFRS), which acts as the local fire department, told the couple the individual or individuals responsible for the fire, if apprehended, would be charged with attempted murder in addition to arson, according to Kozma.

Lt. Francisco Martinez, a spokesperson for the MCFRS, told the Blade the fire in question remains under “active investigation.” He noted that in May of this year, investigators announced they are offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the Gaithersburg arson incident.

Martinez also said investigators with the MCFRS have assessed the damage caused by the fire to the couple’s house at about $550,000, with $350,000 estimated for the structure of the house and $250,000 for the destroyed contents of the house such as furniture and belongings.  

He said investigators are appealing to the public for help in identifying a suspect or suspects responsible for the fire. Anyone with information that might be helpful in any way is asked to call the Montgomery County Crime Solvers line for anonymous tips at 1-866-411-8477 or the Montgomery County Arson Tip Line at 240-777-2263.

With their two-story suburban house at 16 Marquis Dr. destroyed beyond repair, Kozma said she and her wife, local attorney Joanna Crandall, and their two kids are living in a rental house the location of which they prefer not to disclose out of concern that they may still be targets of the unknown perpetrator or perpetrators.

Kozma told the Blade that she and Crandall were not aware of anyone in the immediate neighborhood who expressed hostility toward them as a same-sex couple and household, and they have no idea who or why someone would want to firebomb their house other than possibly because of anti-gay hatred.

“We have lived in that neighborhood for about seven years,” Kozma said. “We were as far as we knew the only out LGBTQ family in the neighborhood,” she said, adding that the couple was also “very active” in the community.

“So, we were always very out and open, and everyone sort of knew who we were and what we were about,” she said. “And we did not face any, as I said, hostility, nothing overt. But we certainly were different from the rest.”

In a written statement they sent to the Blade, Kozma, who works as a senior adviser for a nonprofit organization involved in women’s rights and human rights issues, and Crandall, an attorney, said they do not believe Montgomery County fire investigators have adequately investigated the fire.

“Although Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Services personnel informed us that the arson was being investigated as an attempted murder, they failed to inform Montgomery County Police Department (MCPD) of this unprecedented crime,” the statement says. “To date, there are no local police investigating the crime,” their statement says.

“The stalled investigation of this crime has been so riddled with missteps, incompetence, and failures that the lawyers we’ve consulted with have raised the possibility of MCFRS involvement in the arson and/or complicity in covering it up,” the statement continues. “As both victims as well as Montgomery County residents, this possibility is terrifying,” the two women say in their statement. “When we, personally, informed MCPD of this crime, we were advised by leadership to go to the press with this.”

In response to a request by the Blade, Martinez, the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Services spokesperson, said he would contact MCFRS officials to obtain a response to Kozma and Crandall’s statement alleging that the investigation was stalled and has been “riddled with missteps, incompetence, and failures.” 

Charles Bailey, the Division Chief of Operations for the MCFRS, contacted the Blade late Friday in response to Martinez’s inquiry. He said he can confirm that the fire that destroyed the home of the two women remains under active investigation and that Montgomery County police are also involved in the investigation. But he said he cannot comment further on an active, ongoing investigation.

“We are working with the county police on this and I think that’s important to know,” he said. “But now is just not the right time to say anything more than that. And hopefully there will be a right time when we can talk about this whole thing,” he said. 

The couple’s statement also says they have been informed that as of early this year, the FBI, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division were all investigating the arson that destroyed their home.

Martinez said he couldn’t immediately confirm whether the three federal agencies were specifically involved but said it wouldn’t surprise him if they were involved.

“I know what I was told was other agencies were involved,” he said. “And obviously the FBI and ATF, they also help generally in cases of arson and explosives and things like that.”

 Concerning Kozma and Crandall’s claim that Montgomery County police were not involved in the investigation, Martinez said that, in fact, they are because fire investigators take on the role of sworn police officers.

“Our fire investigators, our fire and explosive investigators are police officers,” he said. “And they go through the police academy, and so they are lieutenants in the service,” he said. “They are a specialty unit, and they have full police authority and police training.”

Martinez said that while he is not directly involved in the investigation, he is certain from speaking with officials on the investigative team that an active investigation is continuing to look into all possible motives for the fire, including a bias-related motive.

“They are still following up on any leads and they are still hoping to get any tips on that arson fire,” he said. “Certainly, fire investigators along with other agencies took all those possibilities seriously and have been following up on any possible motive regardless of what it may be,” he said, referring to a possible hate crime motive based on the couple’s sexual orientation.

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AIDS Action Baltimore to honor John Waters at 35th anniversary commemoration

Honorees to include John Waters and Pat Moran

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John Waters (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

AIDS Action Baltimore will mark 35 years of service next month by paying tribute to six people who have helped keep it in operation, including filmmaker John Waters and his friend and movie industry colleague Pat Moran.

AIDS Action Baltimore’s 35th Anniversary Commemoration, planned for Sept.18, is a cocktail reception and brunch that’s also a fundraiser for the non-profit organization, which was started in 1987 to fight HIV/AIDS and provide a safety net for people living with HIV/AIDS and experiencing a financial emergency.

“John has supported us from the beginning,” said Lynda Dee, co-founder and executive director of the organization. “All of his movie premieres benefitted AIDS Action Baltimore. Without his help, we wouldn’t be here today.”

Waters has directed 16 movies and written 10 books, and he was named in June to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Based in Baltimore, he has two museum exhibits coming up, “Coming Attractions: The John Waters Collection,” an exhibit of art from his personal collection that he’s donating to the Baltimore Museum of Art, at the museum from Nov. 20, 2022, to April 16, 2023, and “Pope of Trash,” a career retrospective at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles next summer.

Moran is a three-time Emmy Award-winning casting director who has worked closely with Waters and others on films and television shows made in Baltimore. She is one of three co-founders of AIDS Action Baltimore, along with Dee and Garey Lambert, who passed away in 1987.

Waters said he’s pleased to support AIDS Action Baltimore. 

“I’m really happy to be involved,” he said. “Pat was one of the first people that started it. I’ve been a supporter always just because I believe I’m lucky I didn’t die of it. Plain and simple. I give money as a superstition that I won’t ever get it. And Lynda Dee is a tireless AIDS warrior. The gay community owes her great, great credit … It’s an organization in Baltimore that has kept many, many people alive … I’m just honored to help them in any way I can.”

Other honorees include:

Richard Chaisson, professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and principal investigator of the Hopkins Center for AIDS Research;

Carla Alexander, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, a fellow of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Care, and an internationally recognized expert for those living with HIV disease;

Debbie Rock, a disco singer-turned-HIV activist who is the founding CEO of LIGHT Health and Wellness, a non-profit that provides a range of services for children, families and individuals in Baltimore affected by poverty, addiction, mental illness, HIV/AIDS and other chronic illnesses, including day care and respite care for children with HIV/AIDS; and

Carlton Smith, a community health worker with the state of Maryland, founder of the Center for Black Equity, and chair of the Ryan White Planning Council, which provides medical care and support services for people with HIV in Baltimore. 

Since 1987, AIDS Action Baltimore has helped more than 8,750 people, distributing $3.145 million in assistance for items such as rent and utilities. It also has a number of programs to fight HIV, from town hall meetings to testing assistance to prevention campaigns, including outreach efforts to at-risk populations.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 31,676 people aged 13 and older were living in Maryland with diagnosed HIV at the end of 2020, and an estimated 3,559 people in Maryland were living with undiagnosed HIV at the end of 2019.

Dee wrote in June that the COVID-19 pandemic has made it more difficult for AIDS Action Baltimore to provide the services it does.

“COVID-19 is eating a large percentage of U. S. Health and Human Services funding,” she wrote she in an open letter to friends of the organization. “We are in danger of losing all our hard-won treatment and prevention gains. Because of COVID-19, it is much harder to obtain the money we need to fight HIV.” 

That’s why AIDS Action Baltimore holds events such as the one next month, she added: “We are still doing our best to help ourselves.” 

AIDS Action Baltimore’s 35th Anniversary Commemoration will be held at the Belvedere (1 E. Chase St.) in Baltimore, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sept. 18. Tickets cost $175 per person or $1,750 for a table of 10. They’re available at aidsactionbaltimore.org or by calling 410-437-AIDS. 

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Maryland

Montgomery County Council approves bill for gender-inclusive, single-use restrooms

Measure passed by 9-0 vote margin on July 26

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Montgomery County Council has approved a bill that will pave the way for gender-inclusive, single-user restrooms in public and county-owned buildings.

The council in a 9-0 vote on July 26 passed Bill 4-22

The bill requires at least one single-user restroom available for all gender identities in a place of public accommodation or county-owned buildings with signage that designates it as gender-inclusive.

Council member Sidney Katz and Council Vice President Evan Glass, who is the first gay man elected to the Montgomery County Council, co-sponsored the bill.

“This bill is supported by many advocacy groups including those representing the disability community and the LGBTQ+ community,” said Katz in a press news release, following the bill’s approval. “It is well reasoned, will not be burdensome to implement and will help everyone feel more comfortable.”

Beyond increasing accessibility for people of various gender identities and expressions, this bill also means to benefit people with disabilities with caregivers who are of a different gender, and parents with children of a different gender who may require assistance using a public restroom. 

“We want everyone in Montgomery County to feel welcome here,” Glass told the Blade on Wednesday in a statement. “Members of our trans, nonbinary and disability communities often feel anxious and ignored by the choices of restrooms in commercial spaces. This legislation will help them and also provide relief for families with young children and caregivers who oftentimes are left waiting outside a restroom.” 

Local activists also supported the bill.

“As a person with disabilities that sometimes needs assistance in the bathroom, gendered single occupancy stalls are stressful for both my spouse and I because we are perceived as differently gendered than one another,” said Ezra Towne, a Montgomery County activist, during a public hearing on the bill.

The bill exempts some locations that include private restrooms in a residence; a hospital; inn, hotel, motel, or an establishment that provides lodging for transient guests; or restrooms that are only accessible from a private room or office. 

Similar legislation has been implemented in Maryland — Salisbury, Baltimore City and Howard County — and in cities across the country that include Seattle; Philadelphia and Austin, Texas. California has also enacted a similar measure.

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Maryland

Md. presses federal government for more monkeypox vaccine doses

State has 129 confirmed cases

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(Photo by HalfPoint via Bigstock)

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and the Maryland Department of Health on Tuesday pressed the federal government for more monkeypox vaccine doses to states.

“While vaccine supply from the federal government is severely limited at this time, anyone who believes that they may need testing or treatment should contact their healthcare provider or local health department immediately.” Hogan said in a statement that detailed updated information about monkeypox. “We will keep pressing the federal government to provide more vaccines to the states and do all we can to make resources available to those at risk.”

“We want to emphasize that the goal is limiting the spread of the virus and vaccinating those who may have been exposed in the prior two weeks,” Deputy Secretary of Public Health Services Jinlene Chan added. “Due to the limited supply of the vaccine from the federal government, the state is working closely with local health partners to make doses available in a manner that focuses on locations that have case counts and higher-risk populations. We plan to expand access to the vaccine as more supply becomes available.”

According to the latest release, 3,202 patients will be able to get the two-dose Jynneos vaccine in Maryland, as allocated by the federal government. Vaccination priority will be given to identified close contacts and health workers exposed to infection. People whose sexual partners have been diagnosed over the last two weeks and those who are members of high-risk populations will be able to access the vaccine.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported there are 129 lab-confirmed monkeypox cases in Maryland, constituting 2.2 percent of cases nationwide. Most of the reported cases have been found in the National Capital Region. 

Individuals who believe they were exposed to monkeypox or have similar symbols should contact their medical provider. People without a provider or insurance should visit health.maryland.gov/CSTIP/local to find contact information for their local health department.

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