Minnesota Arson Expert Fights Fire with Words

A blaze that occurred last December, considered one of the state's biggest cold cases, still haunts Burnsville fire inspector Dave Crosbie.

"That's probably the worst one that I can think of," Crosbie said. "It's an extreme act."

The arson at Gramercy II, a 75-unit senior housing complex under construction, caused $16 million in damages and remains unsolved. A $5,000 reward has been posted for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case.

As Arson Awareness Week wraps up today, Crosbie, 48, talks about his passion for solving such cases. He has dedicated 20 years of his life to fire prevention and research and is among one of the most respected arson investigators in the field. Last week, he was presented the International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI) Presidential Award in Washington, D.C. And last year, he was named the Minnesota Arson Investigator of the Year by the local IAAI chapter.

Crosbie is co-writing a study guide that is expected to be the primary teaching tool for arson investigators.

"Dave's work will help the rest of us better understand how to study fires. We will be able to use the information in investigations throughout Minnesota and the country," said Jamie Novak, president of the local IAAI chapter and fire investigator for the St. Paul Fire Department.

Novak said Crosbie was chosen for the Minnesota award because of his creativity in solving an arson at Grace United Methodist Church that occurred in July 2003. Crosbie was able to find the suspect by checking area pawn shops and matching stolen items from the church at one store. The pawn shop's records led him to the suspect, who received a 4½-year prison term for the crime.

In the 1990s, the way fires were inspected changed dramatically after investigators were criticized for determining causes of fires without scientific data.

As a result, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) published a guide in 1998 referred to as the "921" manual that streamlined procedures and provided scientific information on accelerants and other ways in which fires could start.

Concerned that the book was too formal for the average person to absorb, Crosbie and other experts joined to publish a 2001 supplementary study guide to the original manual. This year, Crosbie is co-authoring the second edition of the guide and also adding the latest scientific research found on fires. The guide is scheduled for release in October.

Michael Schlatman, a past president of the IAAI who chose Crosbie out of 500 candidates for the presidential award, said the manual and study guide has been useful in convicting arsonists because it gives firefighters a uniform set of procedures to follow. It outlines procedures for securing and preserving evidence, photographing a site and conducting interviews. The books also address types of fires, explosions, gases and vapors in order to identify the cause and substance used in a blaze.

"I think the eye opener is the amount of technical information that you need to do this job," Crosbie said. "Going into this field, we aren't scientists by any means. But we have to us a scientific thought process. There's a lot more involved than people think."