August 29, 1988 12:00 PM

It was the first night in many weeks that Helen Merrill had let down her guard. Merrill, 74 and a widow, lately had been in the habit of keeping a lonely, all-night vigil on the front porch of her 18-room frame house in Jefferson, N.H. But when her son, Albert, a Miami-based mechanic for Eastern Airlines, arrived with his wife and three youngest kids for a family reunion earlier in August, Merrill figured she could finally catch up on her sleep. Less than an hour after she had settled comfortably into her bed, the arsonist struck.

Waking abruptly at 12:28 a.m., Albert and his wife, Emilia, caught a whiff of smoke and leapt out of bed. Flames had already begun to spread from a woodshed attached to the house as Albert ran from room to room to rouse his family. He stood by anxiously as his mother ran back into her bedroom to get her purse and a bag of keepsakes she had been storing next to her bed ever since a string of unexplained brush and barn fires in early May put the citizens of Jefferson on notice that there was a pyromaniac in their midst. By late May, the arsonist had begun to fire inhabited homes, and Jefferson, a tiny (pop. 880) village nestled in the White Mountains’ Presidential Range, which used to be about as close to paradise as most people were likely to get, became a purgatory of fear and loss.

Albert Merrill, huddled safely across the street with his family, marveled at the speed with which his century-old family homestead burned to the ground. “I looked back as flames engulfed the place and saw my whole childhood, my whole life, burning up in front of my face,” says Merrill, who escaped with only the clothes on his back. “We’ve always had a home to come to, and now it’s ashes, just ashes.”

Elsewhere around town, the charred remains of the arsonist’s 18 strikes serve as a constant reminder that anyone’s home might be next. Townsfolk who once enjoyed the light of the stars and moon at night have been illuminating their yards with bright spotlights to discourage trespassers. Indeed, few residents dare leave their homes unattended after dark for fear they might suffer the same fate as John Harrigan, editor of the Cods County Democrat weekly newspaper.

On the one night in many weeks that Harrigan risked taking his family out to dinner in a nearby town, he came home to find the back wall of his kitchen destroyed by flames. Only quick work by local fire fighters had prevented the blaze from consuming the entire house. “I hope this doesn’t imply that whoever it is has been watching me for a long time,” Harrigan says. Yet the pattern of fires does seem to indicate that the perpetrator is a local who knows the habits of his neighbors well enough to escape detection time and time again. Even though there have been no deaths or serious injuries to date, townsfolk are terrified by the realization that such “premeditated hatred and evil” could be afoot in Jefferson, says Harrigan. “The whole town is on edge.”

A special task force of 30 state troopers has been assigned to the case. (Jefferson is too small to have its own police force.) Police decline to say whether they have any solid leads, but they have expressed concern about the contagious vigilante spirit in town. Jefferson is the kind of place where a lot of people own guns; these days many folks are keeping them loaded and bringing them along on late-night reconnaissance missions around the area. Says state police Sgt. Leo Jellison: “I’m afraid one of my guys or someone just passing through town will take a hit.”

William Perkins, 54, was burned out of his home in late May. A member of Jefferson’s volunteer fire department, Perkins had spotted smoke at the Skywood Manor motel, just across the street from his home, and rushed to help put out the blaze, which left several rooms in ruins. Three days later it was his turn; just as Perkins was preparing for bed, he heard the squeal of tires outside his house. “When I opened the stairway door, the flames just exploded toward me,” he says. Perkins scrambled to get his wife, two children and an elderly tenant out of the house and just barely rescued his 76-year-old father. Now settled temporarily at the Skywood motel, Perkins spends his nights armed and alert. “I’m up every night, and I will be until he’s caught,” says Perkins, beginning to show the strain of these nightly vigils on top of his 120-mile-a-day commute to his job as an electrician in Lincoln, N.H. “I can live on a couple of hours of sleep as long as I have to. I’ve got a family to protect.”

Meanwhile, divisive suspicions are fraying Jefferson society. “We’re all struggling with it,” says a shopkeeper who asked not be named. “I look at customers sometimes and wonder if they are the one. I’m sure they look at me the same way. It’s an awful way to live.” Without much evidence to support the rumor, some local gossips have speculated that the fires are part of a vicious land grab scheme, though no one knows who might be doing the grabbing. Another is that the arsonist may be a volunteer fireman looking for cheap thrills. “It’s a known fact that quite frequently in these situations the arsonist is within the department,” admits one fireman. “But when I’m out there battling fires, I hate knowing people are wondering about me.” Jefferson’s 35 volunteer firemen have agreed to take lie-detector tests. The department, in a desperate bid to crack the case before someone is killed or injured, also has offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the arsonist.

For now, the only thing police can predict with reasonable certainty is that each new torching will be bolder than the last. “Escalation is the nature of an arsonist,” says Sergeant Jellison. “It’s the thrill of the chase. It builds. It may be that he wants to be caught.”

—By David Grogan, with S. Avery Brown in Jefferson

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