Burning zeal

Back in the ’80s, someone broke into a beer joint on Swannanoa River Road, robbed it, and then set the place on fire to cover their tracks.

“It was an obvious torch job,” says arson investigator Harley Shuford, Asheville’s longtime representative on the Asheville Buncombe Arson Task Force. “You could see the pour patterns from a flammable liquid extending across the video games and up onto the pool table.” For some reason — and he can’t remember why, at this point — Shuford counted the number of billiard balls. Two were missing: the eight ball and the two ball.

After a few weeks, he’d identified a suspect, finally tracking the guy down at his home. Shuford asked if he could search the man’s car, looking for some kind of gas can. He didn’t find one. What he did find, however, was a toolbox in the trunk — and, inside it, the eight ball and the two ball.

“He said he was going to make gear-shifter knobs out of them,” says a grinning Shuford, still marveling at the ease with which he got his man, that time. Grinning because he knows full well that arson is one of the toughest crimes to prove: The evidence is often destroyed in the fire, or washed away in the process of extinguishing the blaze.

“Arson is extremely hard to prove, because it’s not like a murder scene,” explains fire investigator Buddy Thompson, the county’s representative on the task force. “For the most part, there’s no body and everything is destroyed — especially when the fire happens at three o’clock in the morning, on the outskirts of the city.”

Suppose there’s a fire at the top of Flattop Mountain, says Thompson. A 50,000-pound fire engine will average about 6 mph, going up a steep hill, so there’s bound to be considerable destruction by the time firefighters arrive. But if all the kitchen appliances are missing from the rubble, or all the kid’s pictures were taken off the walls beforehand (along with the trophies on the mantel), then you may have reasonable suspicion of arson.

Teaming up

Formed nearly a decade ago in response to the 100 or so intentionally set local fires each year, the task force brings together the most experienced fire and law-enforcement investigators from the city, county and state. “There are no boundary lines for the Arson Task Force,” says Asheville Fire Chief John Rukavina, who retires this month. “The county and city pool their resources to solve suspicious and incendiary fires.”

Arson causes $3 billion worth of property damage each year, nationwide, killing hundreds of people and injuring thousands more, according to FBI statistics. In 1996 alone, 88,887 arsons were reported; only one case in six resulted in an arrest. Scarier still, just 2 to 3 percent of those arrests led to convictions. The conviction rate for the local Arson Task Force is significantly higher, hovering around 10 percent.

Part of that success, it appears, is due to the cooperative relationship between local law enforcement and District Attorney Ron Moore. Assistant District Attorney Al Williams concedes that district attorneys’ offices are typically reluctant to spend a lot time on arson cases, which — besides being difficult to prove — often involve long (and costly) investigations.

“If a person burns a building to the ground, and nobody is standing there with a can of gasoline when the fire department arrives, it has the potential to be one of the toughest cases,” says Williams. “Another part of this is that North Carolina has traditionally [had] one of the leanest judiciary systems; there’s not enough funding. People have to cut corners, but you have to put some time into building an arson case.”

During his 1990 campaign, Moore promised firefighters that he would prosecute arson cases. Once elected, he sent Williams to an arson school in Georgia, run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms — the lead federal agency responsible for investigating major arson. Circumstantial evidence is the name of the game in arson cases, Williams notes. And learning to recognize the same clues an arson investigator would makes it easier for him to convey such evidence to a jury, during a three- or four-day trial.

“Our first big case was January ’91,” recalls Williams. “A family home burned in Barnardsville that looked suspicious to Harley Shuford.” The owner of the torched house lived only five minutes away from his workplace. When he clocked in that morning, his neighbor was already calling 911, because flames were coming out of the house windows. Fire crews were able to extinguish the fire before the evidence was destroyed; they determined that the blaze had been burning for at least half an hour. But when investigators questioned the owner, he said that there’d been no fire when he left for work. That’s a time conflict.

But it takes more than that to make a case. What tipped Shuford off? Besides some unnatural burn spots, he noticed something fishy in the dining room. “There was two sets of dishes on the table, and one breakfast was completely eaten, but the other wasn’t touched,” Williams explains. “They set the fire, and it must have spread faster than they thought, because they didn’t have time to finish their breakfast.”

The homeowner pleaded no contest to the arson charge. “This showed law enforcement we were willing to prosecute, if they worked hard,” Williams says. “If they can make a case, we will try it.”

Smoke-filled rooms

Firefighters constitute the first line in an arson investigation. If they notice an inordinate amount of flame within a short period of time, multiple fires at the same site, blocked entryways and/or odd-colored smoke and flames, they’ll call in the task force. In the old days, Shuford says, most fires were simply written off as electrical in origin, unless someone spotted the dead-giveaway gasoline can.

Fire investigation is a dirty and dangerous business. The charred debris, collapsed buildings, hidden hazards, soot and stench are decidedly uninviting. But hidden in all that blackness lie clues. “If you listen, the fire scene will talk to you,” says Shuford, who acknowledges the aura of hocus-pocus that seems to surround fire investigators. Though he officially retired from the task force last year, Shuford still finds himself turning up at most local fires, and Buddy Thompson says he calls the arson ace daily for advice. “You have to be open-minded, and you can’t have tunnel vision,” allows Shuford.

Arson sleuths will clamber through the cooked rubble, seeking clues as to where and how the conflagration started. They’ll look for signs of gasoline or other accelerants — a specific type of pockmarks in cement, called “spatting”; prisms in pooled water; and “pour patterns” in wood and linoleum. On big fires, investigators will often bring in a canine detective such as Ernie Buecker, who helped search the scene after the Thomas Wolfe Memorial was torched in July 1998. If the dog makes a hit, a sample will be collected and taken to a crime lab for analysis.

To determine the point of origin, arson investigators generally look for “V-patterns” — arrowlike indicators created by the fire as it reaches up and across walls and ceilings, seeking oxygen. And by checking the depth of the char (the area of heaviest burn), investigators can also tell how long the fire burned.

After a recent, early-morning trailer fire off Sick Cove Road, Enka-Candler Fire Chief Steve Elliott and Thompson climb out of Thompson’s pickup and fan out across the now-cold scene. While Thompson wriggles into his dark-blue coveralls and rubber gloves — this is dirty work — Elliott, up the driveway, questions the bystanders who have gathered across the street from the burned-out shell. Do you know who lives here? Did you see any cars speeding away after the fire?

Inside, both men seem immune to the damp, smoky odor, reminiscent of rotting piles of leaves. With flashlights and trained eyes, it’s easy to see how smoke painted the wall in a pattern of soot triangles. “That’s the line of demarcation,” says Thompson, following it to the back bedroom, where the fire originated.

“It was dark and smoky, and I couldn’t see anything,” says Elliott, who has been up all night (the fire started around 2 a.m.) and asked Thompson to assist in this preliminary investigation. “I called in Buddy for a second pair of eyes.”

Together, they sidestep the holes in the floors, the melted toys, and a charred Colorado State University sweatshirt. They excavate the endoskeleton of a queen-size box spring. Bare electrical wires dangle everywhere from what remains of the ceiling. In the corner, Thompson and Elliott concentrate on a “hot spot” — a molten mess containing the remains of a phone and a computer. It looks like a tape cassette forgotten on the dashboard on a summer day. So what was the cause of this fire? Probably electrical, says Elliott.

Why they do it

People will torch their own and other folks’ possessions for all kinds of reasons — curiosity, spite, insurance money, tax or mortgage evasion, vandalism, psychosis or plain professionalism.

And though homes do get burnt for money in Western North Carolina, vehicles are the most common target of arson-for-profit.

“We have more car fires than anything else,” says the 43-year-old Thompson, who has firefighting in his blood (his dad was the Swannanoa fire chief). “I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but it’s hard to determine who the culprit is. If they take the car to an out-of-the-way place, the vehicles are usually totally consumed by the time the fire crew can get there. It burns the tag number. All the owner had to do is say, ‘I didn’t know. My car was gone when I went to look for it.’ [Even] if you find gasoline, the typical accelerant, big deal — the car was operating on gasoline.”

Other common descriptions for local arsonists include “juvenile” and “spurned lover”.

Juveniles will often target deserted structures, perhaps gaining entry through a broken window; they tend to burn anything they find. From September 1997 through June 1998, for example, several teenagers set a series of fires along the riverfront, between Meadow Road and the Craggy Bridge. They burned a construction trailer, a flea-market shack, a loading dock at the old Ice House, an empty, two-story industrial building, and two abandoned homes.

Younger kids are more apt to start a so-called “curiosity fire” — playing with matches and accidentally burning down their parents’ home. There are plenty of those, says Shuford; recent studies, he notes, have revealed that serial killers Jeffery Dahmer and Son of Sam were both known curiosity-fire starters.

Revenge is another common motivation for arson, and jealousy has led to many fires, hereabouts. “A guy might get pissed off because he caught his girlfriend sleeping with someone else,” says Thompson. The FBI’s arson Web site contains this information: “Females tend to use readily accessible flammables, while men prefer Molotov cocktails and excessive amounts of accelerant.” And Shuford remembers an elaborate, but unsuccessful, vengeance scheme. Someone filled 20 milk jugs with gasoline, crawled through the rafters to position them, and strung trails of paper towels to make a fuse from jug to jug. Happily, the fire department got there before all the jugs had caught, but Shuford observes that someone had gone to “a lot of trouble” to get even.

Still burning

What most frustrates arson investigators? “All the unsolved fires,” says Thompson. “It keeps me up nights.”

There are four major unsolved arson crimes pending in Asheville: the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, the Richmond Hill Inn, the Sourwood Inn and the Earl-Chesterfield Mill. “I’m just waiting for the right break,” confesses Thompson. “I need someone to come forward with some information. Most of all the big fires that are unsolved, that’s what we need.”

There’s a $30,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest and conviction in the Thomas Wolfe case. The State Bureau of Investigation was called in to assist after that fire, in the summer of 1998. Over the next few days, investigators interviewed folks who worked at the house and the apartment building next door. They had a few leads as to who might have destroyed a national treasure, but none of them panned out — no one could determine a motive.

Investigators felt a lot of pressure to solve that one — and they still do, says Thompson. “When something like this happens, it takes all precedent. The $1 million loss, plus the sentimental value. It belongs to the state, and it was a needless fire. It’s just such a shame: It’s irreplaceable. How many folks have been deprived?”

In April 1995, arson fires a week apart destroyed part of the Richmond Hill Inn and burned the historic district around the Earl-Chesterfield Mill, destroying 18 businesses. There is a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in those cases. “People say it was the same person,” Thompson reveals, adding, “You have to ponder it.”

Thompson says the Chesterfield Mill was probably a random fire — no motive was ever determined. “Whoever set that fire, I’m sure they had no idea the kind of destruction it was going to cause. The intention was not to set buildings a half-mile away on fire.

“On the day of the fire, wind was blowing 20 mph, humidity was low, and fire conditions were just right to explode. And that’s basically what happened. That book of matches got its money’s worth. I feel like I know who set that fire — I just can’t bring everything together. Just like the Thomas Wolfe, I’m just waiting for the right break.”

Both Thompson and Assistant District Attorney Williams suspect that whoever set those fires may already have been locked up for another arson. “Down on the river, they’ve turned over every leaf,” says Williams. “I’m not convinced that we haven’t already put that person behind bars.”

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