Toledo firefighters battled a blaze at St. Mark Baptist Church on N. Detroit Avenue in Toledo on Jan. 3. The evidence needed to determine the cause of a fire can be burned up, making an investigation difficult.
For years, Toledo has had one of the highest arson rates in Ohio.
It’s a shameful distinction that riles the men and women charged with extinguishing the blazes that are most typically set in vacant homes and vehicles.
“It jeopardizes our membership,” said Jeff Romstadt, president of Toledo Firefighters Local 92. “Fighting fires is a great risk. It’s a very dangerous job. We’d much rather not have to do it. And if it’s intentionally set, it’s just a fire we shouldn’t have to fight.”
The risk to firefighters played out tragically on Jan. 26 when Toledo fire Pvts. Stephen Machcinski, 42, and James Dickman, 31, died while battling a blaze at a North Toledo apartment building. Unlike the majority of arsons, people not only lived at 528 Magnolia St., they were home on the Sunday afternoon when the blaze broke out.
Within a week, the owner of the building, Ray Abou-Arab, was arrested and charged with setting the deadly fire — a rapid and uncommon outcome to a criminal act that’s all too common in Toledo.
Between 2009 and 2012, Toledo annually reported more arsons than any other Ohio city. And, while some 500 structure and vehicle fires are intentionally set each year in Toledo, only a handful of individuals are prosecuted for the crime — 27 last year and 23 the year before, according to the prosecutor’s office.
“It’s bad. It’s very bad,” Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates said. “A lot of vacant homes are burned, and you don’t know. Is it neighbors? Is it for insurance? It’s one of those tough crimes. There’s not somebody there watching you light the match, and the evidence burns up.”
Lt. Matt Hertzfeld, spokesman for the Toledo fire department, puts it like this: “The challenge in a lot of cases is securing that arrest because sometimes the evidence may not be what they need. They need an eyewitness, and a lot of times people are reluctant to come forward with that type of crime.”
According to the U.S. Fire Administration, arson cases nationwide yield arrests just 10 percent of the time. The Ohio State Fire Marshal’s Office says it has a slightly better track record, obtaining arrests in 26 percent of arsons it investigates, on average.
Last year, Matthew Simko, an assistant Lucas County prosecutor, became the first prosecuting attorney in Ohio to complete an 80-hour fire-investigation course with the Ohio Fire Academy. He said his “mouth dropped” when he learned how few arsonists are charged and convicted.
“I hate to put it like this, but arson is kind of a successful crime,” he said.
Individuals set fires for a variety of reasons: to collect insurance money, to exact revenge, to vandalize a vacant structure, or even to conceal a crime.
The last aggravated arson case to go to trial in Lucas County was that of Melody Williams, a Toledo woman who shot L.C. Lyons, Jr., to death in his Sylvania Township home, robbed him, then set fire to the bed where he lay to cover her tracks. A jury convicted her on all counts last March, and Williams was sentenced to life in prison.
“When you have a dead body, a dead body can tell you a lot of things that can help you solve a crime,” Mrs. Bates said. “Still, a lot of murders go unsolved because the witness is dead. Analogously, when you have a burn there might be things you can glean from it. … But footprints, fingerprints, DNA, things that can tell you what happened burn up in the fire. Unless you have witnesses or a confession, a lot of times they go unsolved.”
Mr. Simko said he also suspects that part of the reason prosecutors do not pursue arson cases is the complexity of trying to prove a fire was set, how it was set, and who did it.
“I think the fire marshals believe and investigators probably believe that part of the reason is that prosecutors may be wary to take the case because it involves science and some things that are maybe outside of the comfort zone of prosecutors,” he said.
Though a trial could be a year or more away, Mr. Abou-Arab, 61, of Oregon faces a 13-count indictment by a Lucas County grand jury that charges him with two counts of aggravated murder, two counts of murder, eight counts of aggravated arson, and one count of tampering with evidence. The aggravated-murder charges carry death-penalty specifications.
Tim Spradlin, chief of investigations for the State Fire Marshal’s Office, said the fast arrest and indictment in the fatal fire was the direct result of resources and teamwork.
Local and state fire investigators, he said, worked with Toledo police, the Lucas County Coroner’s Office, state troopers, and agents with the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Even investigators with a private insurance company helped by bringing in massive heaters to literally thaw out the ice-encased building so that investigators could get to work, he said.
“All are critical partners,” said Mr. Spradlin, who was at the scene for four days with three investigators, a supervisor, and two canines. “No one has the resources to do it themselves.”
Mr. Spradlin, who is the lead instructor for fire investigation programs at the Ohio Fire Academy, said he’s been talking about Mr. Simko on his travels through the state.
Mr. Simko's two-week training involved both classroom study on the science of burn patterns, accelerants, and flashovers as well as hands-on experience — sifting through debris of a real fire to determine the origin.
“I wish I could get one from the other 87 counties,” Mr. Spradlin said. “I would welcome entire classes full of prosecutors and detectives.”
Mr. Simko said he hopes the training will make him better qualified to interview and cross-examine fire investigators and other experts on the witness stand about their credentials, methods, and testimony, and help him better understand the evidence from fires.
The fact that firefighters died searching for occupants when the building already had been evacuated demonstrates the real crime of arson, he said.
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-213-2134.