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Former American University professor David Pitts has been a burglar, but don’t call him an arsonist (at least not if he can hear you). In one of the more intriguing recent media lawsuits in the District, the disgraced professor and former prisoner filed suit earlier this month again two TV stations and a website for saying he was imprisoned for setting fires.
The firebug thing didn’t come from nowhere. In September 2014, police busted Pitts, they say in court records, for breaking into stores and setting fires, possibly to gauge emergency services’ response times.
Pitts had matches and lighters in his pockets when he was caught,authorities allege. When police searched Pitts’ apartment, they found blank prescription pads and thousands of prescription drug pills.
In January 2015, Pitts pleaded guilty to burglary and identity theft in a deal with prosecutors that let him avoid admitting to any arson or destruction of property charge. Despite ample police evidence and some very strange tweets from his Twitter account about fires, then, Pitts never confessed in court to any arson.
“He was convicted for burglary and identity theft,” says Pitts’ attorney, A.J. Dhali. “That was it.”
Now out of prison after serving four months on the charges, Pitts wants a retraction from media outlets he says erroneously reported that he pleaded guilty to setting fires. Pitts’ lawsuit names as defendants local ABC station WJLA, NBC station NBC Washington, and their national affiliates.
Hyperlocal news site Patch is also named as a defendant. (Disclosure: I used to work at Patch, but years before Pitts’ arrest).
Pitts’ lawsuit sues the media companies for invasion of privacy, defamation, and infliction of emotional distress. Dhali insists that the arson reports have hurt his client’s reputation more than the burglary and identity theft charges Pitts actually did admit. That’s because, Dhali says, arson is inherently more violent than burglary or identity theft.
“When he did burglarize, it happened to an unoccupied office,” Pitts says. “Nobody was in there.”
Photo by Flickr user jakewaage used under a Creative Commons license