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To catch an arsonist

Juneau Crime Line announces new arson reward program

Posted: March 15, 2012 - 12:10am
In this file photo, Capital City Fire and Rescue Fire Marshal Daniel Jager sifts through debris from a fire, later determined to be arson, at Crow Hill Condominiums in July of last year. The Juneau Crime Line announced the start of a new $1,500 arson reward program Wednesday to try to stop the number of arson incidents in the past year.  Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
In this file photo, Capital City Fire and Rescue Fire Marshal Daniel Jager sifts through debris from a fire, later determined to be arson, at Crow Hill Condominiums in July of last year. The Juneau Crime Line announced the start of a new $1,500 arson reward program Wednesday to try to stop the number of arson incidents in the past year.

After a reported 31 arsons in 13 months, the Juneau Crime Line is upping the ante in hopes of catch arsonists who have evaded police.

The nonprofit crime solving organization, which is Juneau’s equivalent to Crime Stoppers, announced a new $1,500 arson reward program Wednesday to incentivize those with information about unlawful blazes to come forward.

“We’re trying to get some information to help the police department to get these arsons to stop,” longtime Crime Line board member Robin Paul said in a phone interview. “That’s our main goal.”

Crime Line tipsters, who are guaranteed anonymity, are usually awarded up to $1,000 when they provide information that is instrumental to cracking unsolved cases. But Paul hopes the extra $500 will prompt more leads.

“These arsons are something that have really been problematic for the community,” she said.

Capital City Fire Marshal Daniel Jager said there were 31 arson incidents reported from January 2011 through February 2012, and that all of those cases are still open and active. Those include 11 vehicle fires, fire damage to the turf field at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park and Thunder Mountain High School sports fields and the destruction of a Porta-Potty and to the Twin Lakes playground, according to a statement from Paul.

“All of these are still open, and we’re still actively pursing leads on them,” Jager said. “We haven’t just forgot about them.”

Perhaps the most troubling suspected arson was the vehicle and carport fire at the Crow Hill Condominiums last July that “could have resulted in tragedy if the fire had spread to the complex and trapped unaware sleeping residents,” Paul said.

The perpetrator or perpetrators of that crime still remain at large.

CCFR and the Juneau Police Department work together to solve arson cases, with the fire marshal focused on the fire scene (the point of origin of the fire, whether an accelerant was used, etc.) while the police conduct the criminal investigation. But when leads wind down or “things go cold,” as Paul put it, Crime Line can reignite a case by enticing informants to come forward with a monetary award.

“(Arson) is a very big concern for us, and I’m pleased to see the Crime Line is offering rewards to help us solve these issues,” JPD spokesman Lt. David Campbell said in an interview.

He said arson not only poses danger to property and people, but to firefighters and others who respond to the scene.

Arson cases can be difficult to investigate and prosecute if there’s not a confession or witness, Jager said, because potential physical evidence is not only destroyed in the flames, but also by firefighters while doing their job suppressing the fire. He said there’s about a 2 percent arson conviction rate nationwide.

Jager said he hopes this new reward program will jog people’s memory and cause them to think back to see if they remember anything out of the ordinary; and for those who know something, to come forward. The anonymity Crime Line affords is the key, he said.

“Sometimes people are a little more willing to do the right thing if they have a reward, but the key is not so much the money award, it’s the fact that it can be done anonymously,” he said. “They don’t want people to know that they’re involved and that’s understandable. I think the Crime Line is a great avenue for people who aren’t comfortable doing that in person.”

Jager added, “The money helps, but for the most part, people, they’re just concerned about potential ramifications.”

The 31 arsons have come at a high price. Jager estimates the total damage from all the above instances is much more than $100,000, and the damage from the Crow Hill fire alone caused as much.

Local businesses — like Shattuck & Grummett Insurance and Malia Hayward State Farm Insurance — and other community members have stepped forward to pledge money to the special arson reward program. Crime Line is funded only by donations from the community.

This isn’t the first time Crime Line has created a special reward program. According to the Crime Line website, more than $10,000 was pledged for the unsolved murder of Johnny L. Jack Sr. in October 1988 and the murder of Cindy Elrod nearly 30 years ago.

The group also offers up to $1,500 for reporting the purchase or distribution of oxycontin in the Juneau area.

Other popular programs are the $100 reward for reporting drunken driving, and the special graffiti program, sponsored by the city, also pays $100, according to the website.

The last suspected arson incident in Juneau area, Jager said, was a vehicle fire by Glacier Gardens, a botanical garden on Glacier Highway, about two weeks ago.

To report a tip, visit juneaucrimeline.com.

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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