4-Legged Detectives Hunt Down Arsonists

David Liscio explains how the use of accelerant-sniffing dogs at arson and other suspected crime scenes is rapidly increasing.


Accelerant-sniffing dogs are fast becoming key to rapid-deployment arson investigation teams nationwide. They often arrive at suspected crime scenes while firefighters are still dousing the flames. "Dogs have become our secret weapon throughout the country," said Special Agent Frank Hart of the...


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Accelerant-sniffing dogs are fast becoming key to rapid-deployment arson investigation teams nationwide. They often arrive at suspected crime scenes while firefighters are still dousing the flames.

"Dogs have become our secret weapon throughout the country," said Special Agent Frank Hart of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). "Their mission is to put arsonists in jail."

9_97_dog1.jpg
Photo by Walter Hoey, chief photographer, Daily Evening Item/Lynn, MA
Rear view of a triple-decker in Revere, MA, that burned out of control on Dec. 14, 1990, the fire set by arsonists. The 10-alarm blaze left 140 persons homeless. Five homes were destroyed and 12 more damaged. Four men were convicted, the last in December 1995. The case was cracked when a Labrador retriever, named "Sgt. Hulk," from the state Fire Marshal's Office traced accelerants in the ashes.

Hart, who supervises a team of Boston-based arson investigators, said the use of dogs capable of detecting accelerants is increasing nationally.

Massachusetts Fire Marshal Steven Coan noted that the speed at which canines are brought to the arson scene is also quickening. "The 31 troopers assigned to this office are working in rapid-deployment teams. They provide a quick and effective response," Coan said.

Robert Corry, a recently retired Massachusetts State Police lieutenant who was head of the fire marshal's arson squad, explained the strategy. "Whenever people set a fire, they inevitably splash accelerant on their toes and pants. That's why we bring the dogs in right away and search the crowd." As Corry put it, arsonists often enjoy watching the results of their handiwork unfold.

Because insurance companies are among the primary losers in arson cases, they have stepped forward to help law enforcement. For instance, State Farm Fire and Casualty Co., whose home office is in Bloomington, IL, and Aetna Life and Casualty Co., headquartered in Hartford, CT, have entered into public-private partnerships with arson investigation agencies, through which the companies fund the purchase of arson dogs and the training of their handlers. The ATF oversees the K-9 Accelerant Detection Program, providing guidance and technical support. The dogs are trained by the Connecticut State Police. The insurance companies foot the bill.

Massachusetts Public Safety Secretary Kathleen O'Toole said the insurance companies' participation with state programs has been invaluable. By funding accelerant-sniffing dogs as well as training their handlers, the companies have provided "vital tools to successfully investigate the crime of arson," she said, adding that the first of these dogs, "Sgt. Hulk," is credited with solving a 10-alarm fire in Revere, MA, by locating five spots in the ashes. The fire left 140 people homeless. Five homes were destroyed and 12 more damaged. Four men were ultimately convicted, the last in December 1995.

That the Revere fire was purposely set came as no surprise to regional arson investigators. Arson has been steadily increasing in the Northeast. Making arson arrests is tough, occurring in only 15 percent of all cases. Those who set fire to public or community buildings have a one-in-three chance of getting caught, while only eight of every 100 motor vehicles set ablaze result in an arrest. Experts say arson dogs could offset those statistics if accelerants were involved. But many criminals are using cellophane bags stuffed under the dashboard because, once ignited, they do the job virtually without a trace. According to Robert Tibbo, an arson specialist with the Holyoke Mutual Insurance Co., "The potato chip bag is fast replacing the can of gasoline."

James Butterworth, a former Connecticut State Police sergeant now employed by United States Fidelity and Guaranty, an insurance company, previously was in charge of the Connecticut dog-training program. He said dogs trained by the Connecticut State Police are placed with law enforcement agencies across the country. Nearly all Labrador retrievers, the majority of the dogs were purchased from the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind in Smithtown, NY.

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Photo by Anthony DeLucia
Following an April 1995 fire in a furniture store in Ansonia, CT, the city's fire marshals called in the Connecticut Fire Marshal's Office and its dog to investigate the blaze. Here, the dog checks samples taken from the scene (the remains of the fire are in the background).
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