Volusia averages 1 arson every 3 days in 2002

Staff Writer
ORMOND BEACH,, FL -- Just one more flick of his cigarette lighter, rolling his thumb against the flint wheel, and he would have the whole apartment complex in an uproar again.

In the comfort of his own apartment, as described in reports and interviews, Paul Richards had listened to the commotion he had caused less than an hour earlier: the sirens, the shouts of police and firefighters, dogs barking, and the agitated voices of neighbors gathered outside to watch the old discarded sofa go up in thick curls of smoke.

Devastating consequences
DID YOU KNOW? -- The United States has one of the highest fire death rates in the industrialized world. -- About 100 firefighters are killed each year in duty-related incidents. -- Each year, fire kills more Americans than all natural disasters combined. -- Fire is the third leading cause of accidental death in the home; at least 80 percent of all fire deaths occur in residences. -- About 2 million fires are reported each year. -- Direct property loss due to fires is estimated at $8.6 billion annually. -- 80 percent of fire-related fatalities occur in the home. Of those, about 85 percent occur in single-family homes and duplexes.

CAUSES OF FIRES AND FIRE DEATHS -- Cooking is the leading cause of home fires in the United States. It is also the leading cause of home fire injuries. -- Careless smoking is the leading cause of fire deaths. -- Heating is the second leading cause of residential fires and the second leading cause of fire deaths. -- Arson is both the third leading cause of residential fires and residential fire deaths. In commercial properties, arson is the major cause of deaths, injuries and dollar loss. Ormond Beach firefighters put out the blaze before it spread to the county-owned forestlands behind the complex, but the fire was the latest in a string of blazes that had terrorized the Shadow Lakes community. Residents were jittery, afraid of dying while sleeping in their beds one night. Richards waited until all the fire engines had left and his neighbors had gone back to bed. Then, with the lighter in his jeans pocket, he padded barefoot across the parking lot to his next target, one of the large metal trash bins on the remote north end of the complex. This time, the adrenaline rush got interrupted by cold hard consequence. Richards was caught in the act, a rarity in the frustrating, deadly and growing crime of arson. On average, arsonists light more than 100 fires a year in Volusia County, an average of at least one every four days. Flagler County rarely sees arson numbers jump above 10 in a given year, although the wildfires of 1998 saw more than 40.

According to Florida Department of Law Enforcement statistics, the number of recorded arsons reached 111 last year in Volusia County, a five-year high. As of September, this year's number of incendiary fires -- those caused intentionally -- stood at 92. Lt. Pete Tucker, a fire investigator for the Deltona Fire Department, says the recent upswing in arson could have more to do with simple economics than a desire to see flames tickle and dart. "Things are tight now. People get turned upside down in their car or house payments and think 'Hell, we're paying for it, let's sell it back to the insurance company,' so to speak." West Volusia in particular is a hot spot for dumping and then "pouring" cars for profit, Tucker says. Pouring is fire investigation lingo for dumping accelerant on something and torching it. Statewide, vehicle fires accounted for 22 percent of all reported arsons last year. In Volusia County, that figure was 37 percent. "But it's the general public who loses on the whole thing," Tucker says. "Not only from the fraud aspect of it, (but) somebody could end up hurt or dead."

Arson is often overlooked as a crime, experts say, even though it is treated as a class 1 felony that carries up to a 30-year sentence. "The public really doesn't realize the dimension of the problem," says Sandy Burnette, a Tallahassee attorney who drafted state law on arson while legal counsel to the State Fire Marshal's office. "Most see it as a property damage issue. Because of that the priority it has is minimal unless somebody is injured." The low priority means that fire investigators are often left to their own devices. Burnette says the Fire Marshal's office, the statewide agency charged with the task of investigating suspicious fires, has about a third of the manpower it should have to get the job done. "If you have a $100,000 bank robbery, you get everybody from the FDR (Florida Department of Revenue), to the county sheriff, K-9 units and patrol units on the case," says Gene Stone, a Daytona Beach Fire Department investigator. "But you get a $100,000 house fire and you got one investigator on it, you got nobody else."

The dangers of arson, especially in a tinderbox state like Florida, are growing. Last year, 140 people were killed or injured in Florida by arson fires. In the United States, there was a 36 percent increase in arson-related deaths between 1999 and 2000. Fire marshals say every arson is a potential murder case, because firefighters and others may be killed in the blaze.

FINANCIAL, EMOTIONAL COSTS Aside from the safety hazards, arson and suspected arson are the largest causes of property damage in the United States, according to the U.S. National Fire Protection Association. "It's by far the costliest crime -- hands down," says Burnette. "Not many appreciate or recognize that, but if you look at it from an economics standpoint, it's staggering." A typical burglary averages $500 in losses while a typical bank robbery averages $2,000. You add a week's worth of burglaries and robberies and that's a single arson, Burnette says. In Volusia County last year, more than 1,300 fires were reported to the State Fire Marshal's office, causing nearly $8 million in damage. More than $1 million of that could be traced to arson. Even when the property damage is relatively small, the indirect costs can be great. When Paul Richards was sentenced in August to seven years in prison for setting fires at Shadow Lakes apartments in Ormond Beach, he was also ordered to pay nearly $3,000 in reparation to Vanguard Commercial Realty, the owner of the apartments. But that amount does not begin to address the damage done, says Sarah Vandergriff, a co-owner of the complex. Vandergriff says the loss in rents due to the arson scare alone is $30,000 -- 10 times the amount Richards must pay. That is not to mention the toll it took on the residents who stayed. Gene and Linda Jones lived across the way from where Richards lived and two doors down from a laundry room that nearly burnt down. During that fire, the Joneses saw smoke coming through one of the empty wall sockets in their apartment. "That was too close," says Gene Jones. Linda Jones points to a large water heater in the laundry room, which runs on gas. If the fire, which started in a trash can on the other side of the room, had reached the heater, it might have exploded and spread throughout the building, Linda Jones says. "It was really frightening," she says.

TOUGH CASE TO CRACK Catching someone red-handed, lighter in hand, is extremely rare, experts say. Most arsonists are long gone before the fire marshals or other fire investigators arrive on the scene. Most clues, too, are gone or reduced to ashes. Unlike murder cases, there are usually no fingerprints or witnesses who saw the crime. That makes arson a uniquely difficult crime to solve. "Basically you have to create a case out of thin air," says Ken Sigler, a fire investigator for the Daytona Beach Fire Department. "You have to reconstruct something when you didn't know what it looked like beforehand and now it's destroyed." But not all evidence is destroyed by the fire, says Ed McKiernon, a training coordinator for the fire marshals, "The fire creates some, destroys some and alters all of it." Arson nationally has one of the worst arrest rates of any major indexed crime, according to some experts.

While the uniform crime arrest rate ranges from 60 percent to 90 percent, depending on the crime, arson has had traditionally a less than 10 percent arrest rate, says Burnette. "They're getting away with it if not all the time, then most of the time," he says. While they do not track conviction rates, the marshals say the figures don't jibe with their experience in the field. Fire Marshal Greg Kunkle says he averages about 110 cases a year, and his clearance, or arrest rate, is about 20 percent to 30 percent.

Murray McDonald, whose office is down the hall from Kunkle's at the Fire Marshal's small branch office on Orange Avenue, says many times when people are arrested on suspicion of arson, they'll plea bargain down to a lesser offense. "As far as not prosecuting for lack of evidence," McDonald says, "only in a small amount of cases does that happens and it usually has to do with witnesses not being credible." Still, much of an arson case is built from burn pattern analysis and based on the expert testimony of a fire investigator. Often that's not enough to convict beyond a reasonable doubt, prosecutors say. "In many arson cases the evidence is largely circumstantial," says State Attorney John Tanner. "Due to the nature of the crime, there is some frustration for investigators if the evidence indicates suspect A, but is not strong enough to get past a directed verdict." Directed verdicts by judges often lead to acquittals or lesser charges.

Ironically, many arsonists for profit who do get away with the crime are not getting away with the money. Insurance companies, which usually conduct parallel investigations to the public ones, use a much lower standard of proof than the criminal investigations in paying out claims. For insurance purposes you don't need to prove that the policyholder did it, only that he or she had the motive and opportunity. "You better have been having lunch with the pope and the chief of police at the time of the fire, otherwise forget it," said one Florida insurance investigator who did not want his name used. Still, Sam Miller, vice president of the Florida Insurance Council, says arson or even fire is not as prevalent as hurricanes or mold. "Although we have the potential of having devastating wildfires, it's not one of the major cost drivers we have," Miller says. But he adds that arson for profit is part of the $1,500 that the average Florida family has to pay every year for insurance fraud.

MORE PEOPLE, MORE ARSONISTS Experts say arson, like other indexed crimes, is one of the prices to pay for rapid population growth that has hit Florida, indeed, like wildfire in recent years. "The trend in Florida is that it is growing, and with that growth comes all types of things, good and bad," says Cmdr. Chris Nabicht, an investigator for the Deltona Fire Department. Growth has translated into an ever-increasing workload for the marshals.

In the past decade, investigation requests to the State Fire Marshal's office have gone up 70 percent. The agency has about 80 sworn officers who investigate fires statewide. Among them they had to field nearly 7,000 calls from local fire departments for assistance in fire investigations last year. Ideally, marshals investigate 75 cases annually; but many have been averaging more than 100, especially in the North Central region, of which Volusia and Flagler counties are a part. "We are the busiest region in the state," says Capt. Wayne Petrovich, adding that Orange and Seminole counties are hotbeds for car arsonists. "Under the state statute, it says we will investigate any and all fires in the state of Florida that are done out of carelessness and design," says Fire Marshal Greg Kunkle. "Well, that basically encompasses 99.9 percent of the fires, which is physically impossible." But that is changing.

This summer, the marshal's office circulated a new rule which clarifies when the marshals should be called to a scene by a local agency. "(The rule says) we don't need to be called if the fire is obviously accidental or if there is no probable cause to believe it was arson and it does not involve injury or death," says the marshal's spokeswoman Nina Bottcher. The move will leave more time for marshals to focus on incendiary fires and should increase the arrest rate, Petrovich says. Local agencies, too, are learning to become less dependent on the marshals for help and looking for cost-effective ways to battle arson. Nabicht, whose Deltona department is getting six new firefighter positions this year, makes sure each firefighter is trained to read a fire scene for arson so as not to damage evidence. And through an anonymous donor, Deltona has received a trailer, which Nabicht and other investigators on his team will use as a mobile arson lab, complete with power tools, wheelbarrow, fans and a generator. "We can't carry what we need in the trunk of a car anymore," Nabicht says. Meanwhile, computer software to plot arson patterns in Volusia County has been developed by University of Central Florida graduate students. The potential, says Chief of Volusia County Fire Services James Tauber, is unlimited. Called the Volusia County Arson and Fire Map, the software's database has every bit of dispatch information in the county since 1993 and can track anything from population density to amount of vegetation in the area an arson occurred. The map, which will be used starting next year, will cut hours off research time, Tauber says. "We'll be able to get information in real time rather than waiting for it to come back from Tallahassee," he says.

While the number of intentional burnings is going up, fire investigators and state fire marshals are putting offenders like Richards behind bars in record numbers, too. "This year we keep putting them away," said Fire Marshal Murray McDonald, "but they just aren't learning." Statistics from McDonald's office bear him out. This year through September, marshals have cleared 47 arson cases in Volusia, Flagler and Brevard counties by arresting 66 people, a five-year record. Mostly, the cases come out of long, painstaking work among the ashes. "I've done everything in law enforcement except ride a motorcycle or horse," says McDonald, who has been a cop for 23 years and has worked on narcotics task forces, homicides and patrol. "But arson is definitely the most challenging part."
Story from http://www.news-journalonline.com/2002/Nov/17/AREA1.htm