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“I Wanted to Yell Out, ‘I Know What Happened!’ ”
Comments () | Published November 1, 2008

Adam wasn’t the first person Murray talked to. Just before he started the fire, Murray had called a friend who was working at R.J. Bentley’s that night and asked him to come help fight some guys who’d made fun of him. When the friend said no, Murray had come back to the bar “riled up,” according to a witness.

One coworker heard Murray talk about burning something and told him to “chill out” and have a beer. Murray called his friend again later and mentioned finding gasoline in a garage and lighting a porch on fire.

None of Adam’s coworkers from R.J. Bentley’s contacted police. According to Bill Billiet, a former R.J. Bentley’s employee who lived with Murray in the year leading up to his arrest, they didn’t take Murray seriously.

“I remember for like a week after that, everybody was kind of joking with Danny like, ‘Ha—I know you started that fire, and I’m going to rat you out,’ ” says Billiet, “and he’s like, ‘Shut up—I didn’t.’ After about two weeks, everybody stopped talking about it.”

Billiet wasn’t at work that night, but the rumors he heard around the bar—the talk of Murray getting in a fight and burning something—didn’t mesh with the Danny Murray he knew. He thought of Murray as a quiet guy—the kind who would pull over and help a stranger change a tire. He’d never seen him get rowdy.

“It sounds stupid now that we know he did it,” says Billiet. “It sounds incredible that you would hold on to that information. But I genuinely thought, ‘No way—not in a million years could he have done it.’ ”

A few hours after Murray told Adam the details of what he’d done, someone at work said there had been a deadly fire the night before.

Adam later told police that Murray gave him “a look” and that they never spoke of it again.

Daniel Murray had never been in trouble. At the time of the fire, according to court documents, he was living with his grandparents in Hyattsville and working part-time as a barback at R.J. Bentley’s. He’d spent time in community college before transferring to Maryland.

Murray’s family had moved from Prince George’s County to Hurlock, Maryland, a small town in Dorchester County 90 miles east of DC, when he was two. He had grown up with a stay-at-home mom and walked to school a few blocks away. He played Little League and sang in the church choir. When he got injured playing high-school soccer, he started swimming competitively.

In letters to the judge involved in their son’s case, Murray’s parents—who declined to be interviewed for this story—described him as an outstanding student who got along with teachers, coaches, and peers. They wrote about his good morals and character.

His sister, Caitlin, called her younger brother “a kind, generous, intelligent, hilarious person.” She recalled a time when she was crying after a breakup and Danny came into her room to give her a hug.

“The feeling I got was they’d done everything right with Daniel—provided everything he ever needed, got him a good education,” says Prince George’s County detective Ben Brown.

“There are sides of all of us that people don’t know,” prosecutor John Maloney says. “Can you imagine setting a fire, killing someone, and going on about your life? I don’t think most people could do that. He did.”

The day after Daniel Murray told Adam about the fire, Adam called a friend, Jen, and said he’d heard a weird story at work. “I’m going to tell you,” she remembers him saying, “but you can’t tell a single person.”

According to Jen, Adam told her that a coworker had told him he’d gotten really drunk and started a house fire, but the guy had made it seem as though he might have dreamed it.

“You should call somebody,” Jen said.

Adam said he didn’t want to get involved. What if this person—he didn’t tell her Daniel Murray’s name—was making it up? What if Adam messed up this kid’s life? He was a good guy, Adam said, and he couldn’t see him doing something like this.

“But you should tell the police just to check it out,” Jen said.

Adam didn’t want to, and she didn’t want to push him. It was May, and they had final exams to worry about. She asked him who else he’d told. Three other people, he said.

It wasn’t long before Jen knew the story was real. The news reports mentioned a gas can, like the one Adam’s coworker had told him about.

Says Jen: “I remember him saying, ‘I wish I had never heard. I wish he had never come in and said anything. I wish I didn’t work that day.’ ”

Jen wanted to go to the candlelight vigil for Scrocca, but she couldn’t. It was only a day after Adam had told her he knew who started the fire, and she’d been trying to act normal, but she thought maybe people could tell.

“I was scared I was giving off this vibe,” she says.

She would read stories about Scrocca and start to cry. She would have nightmares that her house was burning and she couldn’t get out. Everywhere she went, people were talking about the fire.

“I could have answered all their questions,” Jen says. “I just would sit there so quietly. I wanted to yell out, ‘I know what happened!’ ”

She sent Adam links to articles in the campus newspaper, the Diamondback, to make sure he saw them. Adam’s the one who knows the name, she thought; it would be better coming from him.

“I can’t,” he’d say.

“He didn’t know what to do,” Jen says. “He knew he was the only one that Daniel told. There was no one to back up his story.” Soon the subject was off limits.

A month after the fire, Jen wrote a pros-and-cons list. If she came forward, she could bring an end to the case and help Scrocca’s parents heal. But she’d be betraying Adam’s trust. And what if somehow it wasn’t really this kid who had done it? What if this got turned around on her?

What would she tell police—that she knew somebody who knew somebody who had said these things about the fire? She decided that wasn’t enough.

“I barely knew life away from home, let alone getting involved in a murder case,” Jen says. “The only thing you know is what you see on Law & Order. You don’t expect to ever be faced with it.”

She saw reward signs posted in a bagel shop near campus. The Scroccas were offering $25,000 along with another $25,000 from Crimesolvers. The money sounded good but didn’t sway her.

That fall she saw Scrocca’s dad, whom she recognized from the Diamondback, handing out fliers at a Maryland football game. She didn’t take one.

Mike Scrocca’s parents thought the fire was an accident. So did his housemates. People had been smoking on the porch—maybe someone had dropped a cigarette on a couch cushion and walked away.

About 200 people gathered for a memorial service at the university’s chapel in early May. Some wore a T-shirt with a photo of Mike Scrocca on it.

After the service, Prince George’s County fire spokesman Mark Brady told Tony and Mary Scrocca he needed to speak to them privately. A dog had sniffed gasoline on the porch, he said; investigators were ruling the fire an arson. He wanted them to hear it from him before they saw it on the news.

“It made it all so much worse,” says Mary, who had washed her son’s shirts over and over again to try to get the smoke out. “Somebody did it on purpose.”

The Scroccas met with detectives that day at the Cornerstone Grill and Loft, next to R.J. Bentley’s. When Mary told her son Brian that the fire was arson, he punched a campus stop sign.

People called Brian and Mike “Irish twins”—they were best friends, only a year apart. Arson had already crossed Brian’s mind: He remembered driving around College Park seeing businesses his brother said had been burned down. He wondered if the same arsonist had done this. He knew his brother didn’t have enemies.

“I just really wanted answers,” Brian says. “I knew right away it was gonna be very difficult—there’d be no eyewitnesses at 4 in the morning.”

A few months later, the Scroccas hired private investigator Steve Kerpelman, who’d spent 21 years with the Prince George’s County police. Kerpelman and his staff went door to door and interviewed more than 100 people.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 11/01/2008 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles