Legislature gives arson investigators new clout

Bill would make conspiracy to commit arson a new crime

Gov. Sean Parnell has signed into law a bill giving arson investigators new tools.

“It’s a beneficial bill for investigators all around the state,” said Dan Jager, fire marshal with Capital City Fire and Rescue.

The late Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, a career firefighter, along with Anchorage Reps. Max Gruenberg, a Democrat, and Bob Lynn, a Republican, sponsored House Bill 56.

“HB 56 is part of Representative Gatto’s indelible legacy,” Parnell said at a signing ceremony at the Palmer Fire Station.

In Parnell’s press release following the event, he said the bill “reminds us of his work in emergency services and his unwavering commitment to ensuring local departments had the resources needed to keep communities safe.”

Jager said the bill will add arson to the crimes, such as murder, for which conspiring to commit them is a crime.

In murder, those who conspire to commit a murder can be prosecuted, along with the person who pulls the trigger.

“Now we can have (a charge of) conspiracy to commit arson, we don’t have to prove someone was holding the match and starting a fire,” he said.

When it comes to most big arson cases, including bombing and other explosions, the mastermind often isn’t the one lighting the match,” said Gruenberg, one of the primary sponsors.

“This bill will help us prosecute everyone involved in the crime, from terrorists to anyone else who conspires to set fires in Alaska,” he said.

“Say you have a group of people who are just taking about starting a fire, burning something down or damaging property, that’s conspiracy right there, the actual first- or second-degree arson is a separate charge,” he said.

Juneau has had cases where the statute could have been used in the past, and Jager said he also anticipates it could be used in the event of an arson-for-hire, such as a property owner seeking to collect on insurance.

“That’s a huge problem down in the states, I haven’t really heard much about it happening here in Alaska,” he said.

When the economy is bad, sometimes there can be motivation for a “convenient” fire, he said.

“In desperate times, people will do things,” Jager said.

Now, thanks to Gatto, Gruenberg and Lynn’s bill, law enforcement will have new tools to keep prevent that, or at least catch and punish the culprits afterwards.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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