Loading…
Friday, August 22, 2014
Current Weather
Loading Current Weather....
Published: Sunday, 6/4/2006

Surge in arsons baffles fire investigators

BY CHRISTINA HALL
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Toledo Fire Department investigator Andre Tiggs posts a reward notice at 1145 Nebraska Ave., site of a suspected arson. Toledo Fire Department investigator Andre Tiggs posts a reward notice at 1145 Nebraska Ave., site of a suspected arson.
Enlarge

Betty Ramirez and her two adult children all live on the same South Toledo street, where one of several vacant houses was set on fire three weeks ago.

It's not the first time there's been an arson at 1018 Harding St., city fire investigators said. And Mrs. Ramirez doesn't think it will be the last one there, or perhaps at one of the other vacant houses on the block.

"It's just a matter of time," the 17-year resident said.

Toledo Fire Department statistics show the 60 suspected arsons at vacant or unoccupied properties in the city during the first four months of 2006 are only 10 shy of the total for all of 2005.

City fire officials can't explain the recent spike in the numbers - "There's no real rhyme or reason," Chief Mike Bell said - but they are concerned.

"In [many Toledo] neighborhoods, houses are relatively tight [close together]. There's a danger to a neighbor's house and that can displace other residents and make more vacant buildings," Lt. Richard Bosak said. "They're also a hazard to firefighters."

Across Ohio, there has been a significant increase in arsons, from 6,154 in 2004 to 7,969 last year, according to the state fire marshal's office.

Michigan also experienced a small jump in total arsons, from 3,723 in 2004 to to 3,825 last year, according to the state fire marshal's office.

Several counties in the Toledo area have reported more arsons for the same period, including Lucas, Wood, and Ottawa counties and Lenawee and Hillsdale counties in Michigan.

Concerned about the jump in arsons in Toledo, city fire officials have started the SOAP program - Stamping Out Arson Permanently.

The program includes canvassing neighborhoods to gather information on possible arson activities and getting input from Block Watch captains about such activities.

SOAP coordinates efforts with the Crime Stopper reward program and other local, state, and federal agencies to identify possible arsonists. Rewards of up to $10,000 are available through the Crime Stopper and Blue Ribbon Arson Committee for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of those setting fires.

"Arsons are not easy to investigate - not without the help of residents," Toledo fire investigator Andre Tiggs said after stapling arson reward signs to a boarded-up house at 1145 Nebraska Ave. The home has twice been set on fire.

His colleague, investigator Michael Smith, agreed.

"They are crimes of stealth. Residents are the eyes and ears for us," he said.

There were more than 2,200 structure, vehicle, and other fires in Toledo last year. Fire investigators conducted 501 investigations, of which 421 blazes were ruled arson. Twenty-four people - all but two of whom were juveniles - were arrested.

The city fire investigation unit has handled 123 arson investigations and made at least a half-dozen arrests this year, Lieutenant Bosak said.

Local and state authorities said they haven't seen a trend in arson cases and that increases or decreases in yearly totals are somewhat normal and hard to explain.

"You can't control how a person's going to act," said Shane Cartmill, spokesman for the Ohio Fire Marshal's Office.

Fire investigators said gathering evidence - such as where and how the fire began - isn't the hardest part of the job. It's putting the lighter or match in the arsonist's hand. That can be tough without eyewitnesses, videos, or confessions.

"They're very difficult cases to prosecute. It's circumstantial [evidence] unless you catch the person who set the fire," said Lt. Larry Thompson, a Michigan State Police detective who oversees the state's fire investigation unit.

Annual reports on arson cases from the Lucas County prosecutor to the Ohio Fire Marshal's Office show 13 people were charged in 14 aggravated arson or arson cases from Sept. 1, 2004, through Aug. 31, 2005.

Ten defendants were convicted and received sentences ranging from probation to five years in prison. One person was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Another was determined to be incompetent. An arson charge was dismissed against a third person, but he was convicted of burglary.

Steven Ambrose received the harshest sentence when he was convicted of setting fires to an elderly woman's Springfield Township condominium after she became ill and went to live in a nursing home.

Ambrose, whom the woman had given a durable power of attorney for her finances, also was convicted of writing $6,800 in bad checks from the woman's bank account. Authorities believe he set the fires to obtain insurance money on the condo. He was convicted of two counts each of aggravated arson and passing bad checks and sentenced to nearly 6 1/2 years in prison.

The Ohio Fire Marshal's Office doesn't have good numbers on arson arrests and convictions, because not all of the 88 county prosecutors submit this information, even though they are required to by state law, Mr. Cartmill said.

Fire investigators said people set blazes for several reasons.

Lieutenant Thompson said that "quite a few times" arson and fraud go hand in hand. For example, some people - such as Ambrose - look to collect insurance money, are behind on their bills, or face losing their home or vehicle.

Investigator Smith said he thinks a slumping economy, such as factory closings, "has a lot to do with arsons." So do gang initiations and attempts to cover up other crimes.

Sometimes disputes between people will cause one of the parties to start a blaze.

That was the case at a house on Orchard Street in Toledo's south end.

A man was arrested for setting fire to the back of his neighbor's house May 5 after she hit his residence with paint balls in retaliation for what she thought was his theft of her children's toys, Investigator Tiggs said.

Other times, people want to get rid of an eyesore in their neighborhood. There also are people who are simply "firebugs."

"[The latter] are not as prevalent as an arson fraud," Lieutenant Thompson said.

Last year, the Ohio Fire Marshal and Explosion Investigations Bureau filed 504 arson-related charges, up from 420 the year before, and 190 in 2003.

The increase between 2003 and 2004 was attributed to the bureau's reorganization - personnel moves in which a new chief and supervisors arrived, Mr. Cartmill said.

He said the Ohio bureau has a chief, four assistant chiefs, and 15 investigators. It also has two vacancies. State budget cuts in Michigan pared the number of fire investigators, who are state police sergeants, from 19 a year ago to 12 now, Lieutenant Thompson said.

The Toledo fire investigation unit has gone through several transitions. Two years ago, it was a five-person unit with an arson dog.

The lieutenant returned to fighting fires on the front line and eventually the four investigators did too, in part, to cut down on overtime.

There was one fire investigator working every day, but the work days were 24 hours long and included responding to fire and medical calls, making it difficult to conduct investigations.

Last month, the unit returned to eight-hour weekday investigation shifts with two investigators and a lieutenant.

Weekend or after-hour response is on an as-needed, on-call basis.

Fire officials hope having investigators solely probing fires rather than fighting them will help stem the increase in arsons this year.

"People are living hostage in their own neighborhood," Investigator Smith said. "It's horrible to live like that."

Contact Christina Hall at: chall@theblade.com or 419-724-6007.



Guidelines: Please keep your comments smart and civil. Don't attack other readers personally, and keep your language decent. If a comment violates these standards or our privacy statement or visitor's agreement, click the "X" in the upper right corner of the comment box to report abuse. To post comments, you must be a Facebook member. To find out more, please visit the FAQ.