Arson records thin, full of holes
Marsh Bennett, 78, died in an early morning fire in 2002 that began on the first-floor porch and spread upstairs, trapping him inside.
Investigators never determined the cause, leaving family members and residents in the apartment below to wonder what might have happened:
Was it a smoldering cigarette that set it off? Was it related to all the arsons in the neighborhood?
Despite pleas from family members to reopen an investigation into the fire at 563 Rutledge Ave. on the Charleston peninsula, the city's arson task force declined, saying it had no new clues to go on. But a look at the task force's case file shows how little they had to work with in the first place.
The Charleston Fire Department's report on the fire contained a few pages of fill-in-the-blank forms that mostly described how the fire was extinguished and virtually nothing about what was done to determine who started the fire. A Charleston police detective's report also was in the case file, but his investigation was based in part on the Fire Department's findings.
The thin files on this fire and others raise questions about the department's investigations of suspicious fires, particularly during the early stages of what would become one of the worst arson sprees in the city's history:
Did investigators do thorough investigations then? And if not, is this lapse affecting their ability to track down the culprit today?
Studies missed arsons
Since 2002, as many as 85 suspicious fires have erupted in the neighborhoods straddling the Septima P. Clark Parkway in downtown Charleston, according to a new Post and Courier tally. More than half happened before the evening of June 18, 2007, a defining moment for the department and city.
Before then, city leaders touted the Fire Department as one of the best in the nation, often citing its Class 1 insurance rating, the highest a department can attain.
That changed when nine firefighters died in West Ashley in the Sofa Super Store fire, a disaster that investigators later attributed to poor leadership, subpar equipment and inadequate training.
(The fire likely began when someone tossed a cigarette near trash, though local and federal investigators were unable to pin down who caused the fire.)
The fire chief, Rusty Thomas, resigned 11 months later, and city leaders began a painful and expensive effort to reorganize the department and restore its scorched reputation.
Amid all the local and federal investigations into the Sofa Super Store fire, the arsonist, or perhaps several, continued to set one fire after another in a relatively compact area of the peninsula -- 23 from June 2007 through the fall of 2008.
J. Gordon Routley, a respected fire protection engineer, led a team that analyzed the Fire Department. In a recent interview, Routley said he and his team were aware the city had an arson problem but that their mandate was to improve the department's ability to safely put out fires. They didn't analyze its capacity to solve arsons, he said.
The 2002 fire that took Marsh Bennett's life provides a glimpse into how the department handled suspicious fires.
Firefighting experts have long urged departments to do extensive record-keeping and evidence collection on fires, especially those that have mysterious causes. In a guide published in 2000, the National Institute of Justice said that at a minimum, investigators should:
--Develop lists of bystanders and first responders and record their statements.
--Document the scene with photos and videos, including the crowd watching the fire, and prepare descriptions and detailed diagrams of the scene.
--Enter documentation into a database to identify fire-setting trends.
But the file on 563 Rutledge is remarkable for its absence of such information. It contains no videos, diagrams or sketches, or notes describing which tests were done to rule out arson or any other cause. It doesn't note whether the police department's dog was brought in to sniff for accelerants.
Instead, the Fire Department's file included two standard forms that describe basic information about the fire, a letter from an insurance company and a list of firefighters and the hours they spent on the fire. That list included the department's investigator, Ron Classen, who worked 5.1 hours.
The case file also includes several handwritten police reports, including some from a detective who wrote that he phoned Classen to determine the fire's cause.
Classen told a detective that the fire began on a porch and spread, and that he ruled out arson and electrical causes. The report didn't explain how or why he came up with those conclusions. The detective, however, made his own prediction: "The origin of the fire was the outside porch but the source of the fire may never be known."
Classen has retired and couldn't be reached for comment. Thomas declined to discuss the older cases, saying he didn't want to step on city Fire Marshal Mike Julazadeh's toes.
"It's his ballgame now."
Julazadeh has been on the job for just over a year and a half, after serving as Spartanburg's fire marshal.
Since his arrival, the department has dramatically reorganized the way it investigates suspicious fires.
Julazadeh said he requires much more documentation than in the past. He sends out more people to fires to collect evidence. Where one person was assigned to investigate fires, the department now has four. Two have what the department considers among the highest arson training designations in the field, and a third is working toward that level.
Julazadeh added the level of documentation in the 563 Rutledge fire wouldn't pass muster in his department today. The file is missing detailed notes.
He stopped short of criticizing previous investigators. He said standards for investigating fires have increased nationally in recent years.
He also has wrestled with the way the department kept records of fires.
When The Post and Courier requested reports about fires before 2007, city officials said it would take a massive effort to dig through boxes and find the documents. Information in those reports is invaluable for analyzing past fire patterns.
This poor record-keeping might have contributed to the city's failure to warn residents about the scope of the arson problem downtown.
It wasn't until 2009, when the newspaper began pressing the department for more information about the suspicious fires, that officials acknowledged that a serial arsonist, or perhaps several, had set as many as 50 fires since 2003.
A more extensive analysis this summer by the newspaper turned up additional fires that weren't on the department's roster. Since then, several readers pointed out more suspicious fires the department had failed to include on their list.
One fire not included on the list broke out in the early morning of June 30, 2004, when someone went onto the second-floor porch of 34 Morris St. and set a fire next to a car battery. The incident was marked "suspicious structure fire" on a police report. City officials had no immediate explanation of why that fire wasn't on their list.
Another fire not on the city's list happened at 28 Carolina St. on Jan. 20, 2008. It began about 2:20 a.m., when someone tucked a small roll of paper into a space between the home's foundation and porch and set the paper on fire.
Despite coming across a burning roll of paper, the Fire Department checked "cause undetermined after investigation" on its report.
No police report was written on the fire, and city task force members had no immediate explanation why.
Keelin Love, a neighbor, remembers the fire.
"We asked the firemen whether it was connected to the arsons, and they told us it didn't fit the criteria. Then they left. We felt like they weren't really trying."
That year, 17 suspicious fires broke out in this neighborhood and the ones just south of the parkway, the peak of the area's decade-long arson wave.
Enough being done today?
Love's comments echo others from witnesses who said police and firefighters seemed to do cursory interviews immediately after the fire and few follow-ups as it became clear that a serial arsonist was at work.
On July 17, 2005, a year after the unsolved arson at 34 Morris, another fire broke out at the house.
Andrew Banks Jr. said he spotted the flames just before 6 a.m., as he was riding his bicycle along Morris Street. He said he went to the fire station around the corner and told firefighters what was going on. He said that when he first spotted the fire, the flames were small, so he thinks he missed the arsonist by a few seconds.
He said that when he first reported the 2005 fire, he wasn't questioned extensively by police or firefighters.
"It was more me engaging them in what was happening."
A painter, Banks said he also came across another arson attempt when he was working at a house at 72 Cannon St. He reported that to police. In the years since those reports, no members of the task force have tried to reinterview him, he said.
Banks isn't the only witness who hasn't been reinterviewed. Two men who said they spotted a man setting a fire at Sumter and Coming streets in 2008 told the newspaper this summer that no one from the current task force had talked to them.
In addition, The Post and Courier identified several people with arson convictions or charges who lived in an area near the fires. One with a previous conviction told the newspaper that members of the task force hadn't questioned him either.
'Around the clock'
Julazadeh and police Capt. Naomi Broughton said both departments have many responsibilities to juggle, and manpower limitations prevent them from doing all they would like to do. Other duties get in the way. For instance, Julazadeh said he handles three or four Freedom of Information Act requests from businesses a day, in addition to those forwarded to him from the newspaper and other media organizations.
"We're pounded by FOIAs. Right now we're so stretched, we can barely meet the deadlines," he said. "We have no admin assistance at all. It's all us."
Broughton added: "I would love to talk to every witness in past crimes. … But I think we're focusing on what is pertinent information at the time."
She and Julazadeh said they can't reveal specific steps the task force has taken to track down the arsonist because it could jeopardize their work.
"All the public sees is that we haven't made an arrest," Broughton said. "We've done a great deal of talking to people. We made huge strides in looking at these fires. We're working around the clock to solve these cases."
In the meantime, the downtown fires remain a mystery, including the one that took the life of Bennett.
"We've looked at everything in this case," Broughton said. "I wish we had new evidence, a witness come forward, or a suspect to admit to it. Unfortunately, we don't have it."
While they've spent a great time reviewing the case, they acknowledge they haven't reinterviewed witnesses or residents in the area about that case.
Still, Julazadeh said, the task force hopes someday to get a clearer answer about what happened in that fire.
"People get hung up on the term 'reopening the case.' "
He said by classifying the case as "undetermined," it gives "us some latitude as new information comes forward whether you call it reopening or not. There's room here for change."