7/18/2008

Fire Fraud & Arson: Common Indicators of Foul Play

By James Enos, CFEI

It takes a qualified and experienced fire investigator to sift through the charred, smoldering remains of a building. Common indicators of arson and fraud easily can be overlooked when performing origin and cause determinations on fire losses. The ability to recognize and understand these signs are important in the early stages of an investigation, and requires the skills of seasoned professionals. This is especially critical when evaluation of blackened and deformed remnants is unclear.

The current economic climate in a localized geographic region can play an important role in the circumstances surrounding an investigation. Loss of jobs, declining housing values, increased gasoline, home heating and other costs, and even localized political instability can have a psychological impact on individuals under duress. A sudden and urgent need for cash flow can set the stage for normally rational individuals to be lured into temptation.

Desperation and financial distress are leading motives for the perpetration of fraud. Severe economic circumstances can create situations where otherwise honest and hard-working people are tempted to commit fraud as a perceived “only way out.” A close look at the life circumstances and financial history of the parties involved may aid in directing the line of questioning during interviews. A good investigator must be familiar with the common motives for fire setting, and should conduct the interviews accordingly. The following short scenarios are classic examples of clues and suspicious behaviors that raised attention during the course of routine fire investigations, and they are examples of when more directed questioning is warranted.

Case Study #1: Where are the Pets?
The disposition of the family pets during a suspicious fire is an important point to consider. People love their pets and will go to great lengths to keep them safe. Rarely will an individual be willing to sacrifice a pet in a deliberate fire. Therefore, asking questions regarding the location of family pets during the event can help gain valuable insight into the thought processes of the homeowner prior to the fire.

Coming up with a valid reason for removing pets from a home before setting an intentional fire takes creativity, especially when there are multiple dogs, cats, hamsters, and turtles involved. Taking a single dog or cat to the vet or to the pet store may be believable, but how does one explain simultaneously removing all of the pets without raising suspicion? When questioned about the location of the pets during this fire, one homeowner had a simple and creative answer…the mass exodus was blamed on the deployment of “Bug Bombs.”

During the ensuing origin and cause investigation, a quick check of the cages and aquariums revealed all of the animals to be safely out of the house. A look through the fire debris revealed numerous bug bombs inside the house, and the garbage contained the empty boxes as proof. Unfortunately for this homeowner, the physical evidence gathered during the investigation raised suspicions. Burn patterns led the investigator to the closet between two bedrooms, which was determined to be the area of origin of the fire. Evidence of liquid pour patterns on the floor and saddle burns on the floor joists, coupled with the lack of a nearby ignition source, suggested probable arson. Subsequent testing revealed the presence of ignitable liquid residues present at the point of origin of the fire.

Bug bombs have occasionally been known to initiate a fire when ignited by a pilot light or other ignition sources; however, the bug bomb ingredients wouldn’t necessarily have shown up in an ignitable liquid test. In addition, no bug bombs were found at the point of origin, which ruled out the bug bombs as a potential initiating cause. The pets aren’t the only ones spending time in a cage these days!

Case Study #2: Can’t Sell the House
An explosion occurred in a small, single family house in Waterford, Michigan. The owner’s original story was that his wife and children were out for the day at a birthday party. He was home working around the house and decided to go to Home Depot to pick up some supplies. When he returned home, he walked in the door and smelled natural gas. Suddenly, there was an explosion and he was blown out the front window.

In the course of the investigation that followed, it was discovered that the natural gas line to the furnace had separated at the shutoff valve. The pipe and valve were evaluated microscopically and tested by metallurgical analysis. The results showed conclusively that the line had been deliberately disconnected.

The owner was confronted with the findings of the analysis, and only then did he reveal the truth. He was in the process of building a new house in another community, and his current home was not selling. The homeowner was aware of a severe moisture problem in the crawlspace, which had rotted the floor joists and resulted in a serious mold infestation. His son had severe asthma, and the homeowner believed his condition was aggravated by the airborne mold spores which triggered several attacks requiring his son’s hospitalization.

Out of desperation, the homeowner decided to blow up the house. While his wife and children were away, he disconnected the gas line and let it vent into the house. He left for the store for about 45 minutes, expecting the house to burn down. When he returned home, the building was still intact. When he entered the house, there was a strong odor of gas, and since his family was due home soon, he turned on the furnace blower fan to exhaust the gas from the house. However, the start of the blower fan caused ignition of the gas, which violently displaced several walls. He was still inside after the blast and could not open any doors to escape due to the wall displacement. He decided to dive out the front picture window into the bushes, rather than being “blown out” as he originally claimed. In this case, the analysis of the physical evidence led investigators to the truth.

Case Study #3: The Failing Business
Starting a new business can be an exciting and stressful venture. However, things don’t always work out as planned. Owners may panic under the pressure of running a business and choose a path that leads to faulty decision-making.

When the local economy turned sour, the owner of an established pizza shop felt an immediate impact on her business. The owner became financially over-extended with two failing pizza shops. Keeping a qualified and reliable staff became increasingly difficult and required the owner to work long hours with no relief. With rising food and fuel costs, advertising expenses, and increased competition, the stress became unbearable.

One morning, the pizza shop owner complained about business to the convenience store clerk next door, and did not realize that the video surveillance system was recording her. These recordings later served to contradict some of her original statements to police. Later that same morning, smoke was observed coming from the northwest corner of the pizza shop area. The fire department responded and found fire inside the exterior wall cavities on the north and west sides.

When the pizza shop owner was interviewed, she told investigators that she “walked around the building to pick up trash” but never entered her store, and then she left the area. She described the trash she picked up, and where she deposited it. She also complained that there were mischievous kids frequently loitering around the rear of the building. Investigators found charred papers in the trash container and two fake Molotov cocktails, constructed of 20 oz. Mountain Dew bottles, with wicks sticking out. The liquid inside the bottles was Mountain Dew and not an ignitable liquid, such as gasoline, which would normally be used to make a Molotov cocktail. The investigators then found several plastic carriers inside the pizza shop containing 20 oz. bottles of soda pop. The only carrier with any bottles missing was the Mountain Dew carrier, which had two bottles missing. The bottles of Mountain Dew that the owner said may have been used to make Molotov cocktails had come from that very store.

The building security company was contacted, and they indicated that the pizza shop owner used her security code to enter the store 15 minutes prior to the fire. The fire origin was determined to be inside the exterior wall cavity, which was constructed of corrugated steel sheets. One exterior sheet had a 4-inch square hole cut in it, which allowed easy access to the wall cavity from the exterior. The hole was determined to be the point where fire was deliberately introduced to the wall cavity.

When investigators tried to bring in the store owner for an interview, she attempted suicide and was hospitalized. When finally confronted with the findings of the investigation, she confessed to setting the fire and was charged with arson.

Case Study #4: Expensive Antiques
Exaggerating the value of a claim, even when the fire is not maliciously set, is a tactic frequently used to commit insurance fraud. Including the loss of antiques, designer clothes, and other non-existent items can inflate the value of a loss significantly. Verifying the contents of a house has little to do with an origin and cause fire investigation. However, a few extra photos and attention to detail when documenting the overall material condition of the premises may prove to be extremely useful to verify the presence or absence of claimed items. This is one case where a little extra effort went a long way.

An accidental fire caused moderate structural damage to an unoccupied single-family house. During the interview, the homeowner stated that the dwelling had been vacant for about six months, and that most of the contents had been removed prior to the fire. Several weeks later, a relative of the homeowner filed a claim for over $100,000 in “antique furniture” lost in the fire. A careful retroactive review of the evidence and photographs taken during the origin and cause investigation conclusively revealed the claim to be false. Objects such as hinges, knobs, mirror clips, etc., are just a few of the many items that survive a fire and are sometimes catalogued and identified in the origin and cause investigation process. The presence, or in this case, the absence of such items proved to be very useful in refuting this falsified secondary claim.

Lessons Learned
Close scrutiny of the physical evidence compared to the verbal statements of owners and eyewitnesses is extremely important in unveiling the shroud of uncertainty in situations where finances, stress, and emotions may cloud the judgment of the involved parties. The case studies described above illustrate how a thorough investigation can prove useful for both primary and secondary claims. Be certain to choose professional investigators with proven track records and credentials in the area of fire origin and cause investigations.
David A. Row, IAAI-CFI, CFEI (drow@donan.com), James Enos, CFEI (jenos@donan.com) and Frank P. Battaglia, P.E. (fbattaglia@donan.com) are with Donan Engineering Co., Inc., which provides full-service forensic engineering and fire investigation services.



James Enos, CFEI, is with Donan Engineering Co., Inc., which provides full-service forensic engineering and fire investigation services.

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