Arson: A hard crime to identify and solve

Clues elusive in fire cases

Posted: Sunday, March 19, 2000

Being suspicious is part of Randy Waters' job.

As Juneau's fire marshal, Waters investigates suspected arson cases in the capital city. But in his field, even extensive investigations turn up few criminals. In his three months on the job, Waters has unraveled just one case.

Most arson cases remain unsolved mysteries because the evidence has gone up in smoke. And what evidence isn't destroyed by flames or ash may be obliterated by firefighters while they work to put out the blaze.

``A lot of the time, a lot of evidence you find in any other crime scene has been altered or destroyed at a fire scene,'' said Sgt. Jerry Nankervis, one of two Juneau police officers trained at the National Fire Academy in Maryland.

Arsonists are believed to have set about 12 percent of Alaska's 2,640 fires in 1998, according to the state fire marshal's office. Another 8 percent are ``of a suspicious nature,'' which means they may have been caused by arson, but there isn't enough proof to be sure.

 

Nankervis has 12 years of experience investigating Juneau fires, including those at Channel Marina in 1996 and Valley Video in 1997.

``I am not pleased to say that neither one resulted in a prosecution, but that is more the norm in arson cases than in other crimes because of the lack of trace evidence,'' he said.

The one case Waters solved since becoming city fire marshal was a $15,000 blaze at the downtown Tesoro gas station on Feb. 23.

In the initial stages of his investigation, Waters found suspicious the pattern that flames followed in Tesoro's records room on the second floor.

 

``The way the heat traveled in there, it did some strange things,'' Waters said. ``It melted computer equipment. It occurred to me that they might be trying to hide records on the computer hard drive, but we were able to retrieve the hard drive.''

Although a healthy suspicion is an integral part of a fire marshal's job description, Waters said, it occasionally feels foreign to him.

``Generally it's my nature to approach the public with a happy attitude and a smile,'' Waters said. ``But to be effective as a fire marshal, I have to be more like a police officer.''

After interviewing witnesses, and taking into account all available clues, Waters decided the fire was not caused by arson but by accident. He concluded that sparks from an ashtray emptied into a waste basket caused the blaze.

``I hate to make it seem like we are always looking for suspects, but we have to do that in order to rule things out,'' he said.

Certain combinations of clues will lead firefighters to begin thinking, ``This was not accidental,'' Waters said.

``When we have that suspicion, we will follow up with a criminal investigation until we prove otherwise.''

Contrary to popular belief, fingerprints can sometimes be found at fires. ``Even if the fire burned the item, there is a chemical procedure that can draw fingerprints out,'' he said. ``That's very rare - but it is a possibility.''

Serial arsonists or professional arsonists are rare in Alaska, according to Chester ``Chet'' Weger, assistant director of the State Fire Marshal's office in Anchorage.

``Here in Alaska, we don't have the professional arson problem that you see in some of the big population areas in the Lower 48,'' Weger said.

``If a stranger comes into town in Alaska, somebody knows about it. The majority of the cases we experience here are pretty quickly tracked back to someone who is personally involved - not arson for hire. Alaska's arson fires are usually set for revenge, for the insurance or to destroy evidence of another crime,'' Weger said.

Typical of Alaska is the ``domestic dispute where the wife gets the house in a divorce settlement and the husband doesn't like it, vs. a big professional job,'' he said.

The last major fire attributed to arson in the Anchorage area was a blaze at the Butte Community Center, at the southern edge of Palmer. In that case, brought to settlement about four months ago, a couple of kids were trying to cover up a burglary they'd just committed, Weger said.

As Juneau fire chief from 1969 to 1980, Douglas Boddy presided over the downtown station.

``We had a few suspected arson fires during my time,'' Boddy said. ``We say `suspected arson' when we have eliminated all other possible causes.''

Boddy remembers in particular a Baranof Hotel fire, which killed a Minnesota woman in 1974. The fire also injured 15 other people.

Boddy believes this was an arson case.

``We were never able to follow up on it and arrest anyone,'' Boddy said.

Finding evidence is the chief obstacle in solving arson cases, said Jerry Gentile, deputy fire marshal and supervisor of the state's Southeast Regional Office of Fire Prevention.

``We can come to the conclusion a fire is suspect, but if you don't have very strong evidence of arson or eyewitnesses, it's very hard to convince the district attorney to take the case,'' Gentile said.



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