SILVER SPRING, Md. (ABC7) — The clanging sound of a fire alarm has echoed throughout the halls of a high-rise apartment building 37 times in the last four months, all thanks to one man, Montgomery County Police allege.
The onslaught of malicious fire alarm activations at the Park Montgomery Apartments — located along the 8800 block of Piney Branch Road — began in November.
Seeing as the structure is 16 stories tall, each call required a proper response by the Montgomery County Fire Rescue Service.
By early February, firefighters had been dispatched to 37 false alarms at the building — each activated by a pull station located in the third-floor elevator lobby area. Most of the incidents occurred between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.
Irritated, investigators devised a plan with building management and maintenance workers.
Together, they placed a camera within a wooden box, which had an eagle-eyed view of the targeted pull station. However, by the following day, someone had placed a magazine page over the camera lens.
During an undercover sting on the night of February 3, a Montgomery County fire and explosives investigator observed a man activate the pull station. The building alarms sounded within five seconds.
The man had dark skin, black facial hair and was wearing a green-colored kaftan (a robe or tunic with fabric that often reaches the ankles and has long sleeves).
The lieutenant shouted, "Police! Stay where you are!"
Yet, the suspect sprinted away. The lieutenant radioed for backup and then heard the sound of a door shutting.
Three officers descended on a third-floor apartment, knocking on the front door. An older man answered and allowed the police inside.
There they located Estifanos Woldesenbet, 26, in a locked room wearing a hooded sweatshirt and blue jeans.
Woldesenbet reportedly told police he had been sleeping, but officers noted he appeared "wide-eyed and anxious." When questioned about his level of alertness, Woldesenbet explained he had used "crack" earlier in the night.
Investigators returned to Woldesenbet's apartment three days later, this time armed with a search warrant.
That search uncovered the green kaftan and a magazine with a missing page, which aligned with the page used to cover the concealed camera.
The 26-year-old subsequently admitted to activating the fire alarm "at least 10 times," investigators said.
Authorities said that not only did Woldesenbet waste hundreds of emergency man hours but also created a "boy who cried wolf effect" within the apartment building.
For instance, many building residents no longer evacuate when they hear the fire alarm because they think it is merely another prank.
“If they are going off all the time and there is no real emergency, people are going to get complacent, they’re going to think it’s just another alarm bell, another false alarm, when if in fact there is a real emergency, they won’t evacuate," said Pete Piringer, a spokesman for the Montgomery County Fire Rescue Service.
On Thursday, Woldesenbet told ABC7 News that frequent use of crystal methamphetamine caused him to hear voices and struggle with anger management.
Pulling the fire alarm, he said, was not for fun, but rather therapeutic, relieving tension, anxiety and stress.
When asked if he ever feared getting caught, Woldesenbet confidently said "no," adding that he did not think it was that big of a deal.
To his credit, the 26-year-old claims he has not used illegal drugs for two months and is now seeing a therapist.
Woldesenbet has been charged with causing a false fire alarm, possession of drug paraphernalia and reckless endangerment. He faces up to 10 years in prison.
The Maryland Office of the Public Defender is representing Woldesenbet. It does not talk to the press about pending cases.