Detroit pays high price for arson onslaught
Detroit — Arson is a raging epidemic in Detroit, destroying neighborhoods and lives as the city tries to emerge from bankruptcy.
Even amid a historic demolition blitz, buildings burn faster than Detroit can raze them. Last year, the city had 3,839 suspicious fires and demolished 3,500 buildings, according to city records analyzed by The Detroit News.
Burned homes scar neighborhoods for years: Two-thirds of those that caught fire from 2010-13 are still standing, records show.
"Nothing burns like Detroit," said Lt. Joe Crandall, a Detroit Fire Department arson investigator, referring to the city's high rate of arson.
The Detroit News researched arson for more than three months and found that it remains a huge obstacle to renewal efforts following bankruptcy. The News reviewed records of more than 9,000 suspicious fires from 2010 to mid-2013 and found that arson has decimated the northeast, southwest and far west sides of Detroit.
Few neighborhoods were untouched by arson and the entire city bears its costs. Homeowner insurance in Detroit is at least double the state average because of arson, while the city last year spent $3.5 million to demolish at least 247 homes that have caught fire since 2010. Its human toll is unmeasurable: Last year, 17 people died from intentionally set fires, and half of all suspicious fires were in occupied homes.
"People don't realize arson is a felony. They think it's just a crime against the insurance company," said Lori Conarton, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Institute of Michigan, an industry group that funds anti-arson efforts. "It's a crime against all your neighbors."
Aides to Mayor Mike Duggan, who has made fighting blight the cornerstone of his administration, declined comment on The News' findings or his strategy for reducing arson.
Arson Chief Charles Simms said the city is making progress in its long struggle with arson. Removing vacant houses will eliminate targets for arsonists, he said, and the city's bankruptcy plan frees money for blight efforts and re-staffing an arson squad that was hit by budget cuts.
This year, the squad expects to hire four investigators, bringing its total to 14. Detroit has the nation's highest arson rate, but the number of suspicious fires declined 14 percent last year, records show. The majority of suspicious fires are believed to be intentional, Simms said.
"I am optimistic we're making big changes," said Simms, who took office last year.
The News constructed a database listing the locations, cause and other details about suspicious fires from 2010-2013. It created maps of fire hotspots in Detroit and compared the addresses with results from a Detroit Blight Removal Task Force study that cataloged the condition of all homes in the city.
The News found:
- The vast majority of homes that burned from 2010 to 2013, at least 66 percent, have yet to be demolished.
That includes a fire-scarred hull of a home on Chalmers near Chandler Park that's vexed Calvin McGhee or years.
"If you are in the right part of the city, things are getting better," he said. "If you're in the wrong part, it's not getting better at all."
Duggan's demolition blitz targets six wide areas of the city. It's funded by $52 million in federal funds that expire this year. The city's bankruptcy settlement set aside $440 million for blight removal, but a city report last year found Detroit may need $850 million to complete its demolitions.
- More than 1,000 blocks in Detroit had two or more suspicious fires in 2010-2013. In all, property damage from arson cost the city and Wayne County about $248 million in 2013, according to estimates from the Michigan Arson Prevention Committee, a nonprofit funded by insurance companies to discourage arson.
Most torched homes, 52 percent, were occupied, while 23 percent were vacant from 2010-2013. There was a similar ratio last year, according to Fire Department records.
"Arson is like a cancer," said Louisa Papalas, the only Wayne County assistant prosecutor assigned to handle arson cases.
"Once one home is set on fire, if it's left to stand, it spreads from one house to the next. Pretty soon, there are one to two viable homes on the block."
- Staffing levels in the arson squad only allow one-third of suspicious fires to be investigated. Last year, warrants were issued against 142 in Detroit for arson. That's up from 115 in 2013. It still represents a fraction of all suspicious fires.
"You can get away with it because it's not going to be investigated," said Robert Trenkle, a retired Detroit arson investigator and owner of Certified Investigations International, a Redford-based firm that investigates about 800 Detroit fires a year for insurance companies.
- Along with burglary, arson has pushed rates for homeowner insurance to the highest in the state.
The average policy in Detroit is at least $1,700 per year, said Eric Huffman, who owns a State Farm agency in New Center. The average policy in Michigan was $774 in 2011, the last year figures are available, according to the Insurance Institute of Michigan.
Huffman said rates are highest in three ZIP codes with the most suspicious fires: 48209 in southwest Detroit and Delray, 48205 in northeast Detroit and 48203 in north Detroit near McNichols and Woodward.
"It affects everyone. No doubt about it. We're all paying for it," Huffman said.
- Detroit's arson rate is at least five times higher than cities such as Dearborn, Warren, Southfield and Clinton Township, according to FBI statistics.
Like few other neighborhoods, arson has decimated Delray in southwest Detroit.
Francis Newsome keeps a neat house with lawn decorations behind a metal fence. Next door is the charred shell of a home that has burned twice in the past five years. On her block of Lyon Street, eight homes have burned since 2010. Within two blocks, another 20 have caught fire.
Her neighborhood has the highest per-capita rate of suspicious fires in Detroit. There were 89 from 2010-13. Only about 680 residents remain in the neighborhood squeezed on the west by the Marathon refinery and on the east by a planned second bridge to Canada.
"It's dying down a little bit," said Newsome, a lifetime resident of the neighborhood. "There's just not much left to burn anymore."
In Brightmoor, Riet Schumack and other homeowners board up about 40-50 abandoned and burned homes a year. In three years, 385 homes burned in her ZIP code, 48223, which has about 26,000 residents.
"It's our experience that if a house is empty more than 24 hours, it will get scrapped. And then there is a 50 percent chance it will burn," said Schumack of the Neighbors Building Brightmoor group.
Houses are boarded with wood painted by children. That seems to discourage arsonists, she said, adding that fires are worse on blocks not covered by the group.
Charlotte Beatty has tried three years to rebuild her life after an arsonist torched her apartment complex near Mack and Conner on Detroit's east side. She lost everything, now lives with her daughter in Hamtramck and is trying to find a job.
She hurt her shoulder jumping to escape the flames and still has nightmares. A man was convicted of setting the 2011 fire because he was upset that a tenant he met in prison quit the Nation of Islam.
"It had nothing to do with me," said Beatty, 51. "We still hurt. Our family hurts."
Simms, the new arson chief, said he has a plan to cut suspicious fires in half and to investigate 80 percent to 100 percent of all fires by 2019.
His first year was aided by an increase in demolitions and the arrest of three serial arsonists suspected in hundreds of fires.
"My goal is that we will be the city that, as far as fires are concerned, turned it completely around," Simms said. "We'll be the standard for the country. I know that sounds optimistic, but I think it is obtainable."
Simms' plan relies on increasing public outreach, filling vacancies in the arson unit and changing its priorities. He's divided the city into quadrants, assigned investigators to each one and ordered them to focus on making arrests in solvable cases with witnesses.
"We're seeing things stabilize," said Fire Commissioner Edsel Jenkins, who oversees the Detroit Fire Department. "People are taking care of the properties they have."
Simms is up against the tide of history. For years, Detroit has been known as the nation's arson capital. It is the leader among big cities in FBI data, which only tracks confirmed arson cases, not fires that were never investigated.
Another agency, the U.S. Fire Administration National Fire Data Center, counts every fire. Its most recent national numbers are from 2012 and show Detroit is second to New York City in intentional fires or those with unknown causes.
New York had 9,168 fires and 100 fire investigators. Detroit had 5,510 and as few as seven investigators from 2010-13. Ten are now on board in Detroit, with plans to hire another four.
Simms said the city is doing its best with its resources. He pointed to a June report from the National Insurance Crime Bureau that found the number of fire insurance claims in Detroit fell 23 percent in 2013 to 1,078 from 1,306.
Those claims were against homeowner insurance policies. Huffman, the insurance agent, said property values have fallen so far in Detroit that many residents frequently opt against buying homeowner insurance. The average Detroit home sold for $16,000 in October, down from $75,000 in 2005, according to RealtyTrac, a California-based real estate data firm.
"Every day, I give a quote to someone who doesn't have any coverage on their home anymore," Huffman said.
"It's just, 'Hey, I can't afford it.'"
Trenkle said more arson schemes today involve renter insurance that can be purchased online and often requires no inspection of properties.
"The housing market crashed, and it does induce people to set fires to their properties," said Trenkle, who retired from the Detroit arson squad in 1991.
"Now, they play games with renter insurance. It's a lot less expensive. People change roles. One day, you are the tenant. The next, you are the homeowner."
Most policies require tenants to list landlords. So many schemes involve transferring property to relatives or falsely listing them as landlords, Trenkle said.
Alceda White faces trial in March on claims she did just that to escape big debts at her home on Rossini near Hayes.
She once owned the house but transferred the deed to her daughter and then bought a $50,000 renter policy, said Lt. James Hill-Harris, an arson investigator. She is accused of rolling up paper into a wick, dousing it with gasoline and striking the match that burned the home.
"She was up to her eyeballs in debt. She kept applying for more credit. Denied. Denied. Denied. She was getting more desperate," Hill-Harris said.
White made mistakes, prosecutors allege. There were no dirty clothes in the house. Or food in the refrigerator. Most telling: An urn containing the ashes of a relative was missing after the fire, Hill-Harris said.
In May, an east side family was sent to prison for a renter insurance scam. Two months after buying a policy in April 2013 for a home on Devonshire near Interstate 94, they called police to report someone breaking into their home.
Then they set a fire and went to the movies. They returned to find the fire didn't do enough damage, according to trial testimony.
So they set another one, called the police again and returned to the Ford-Wyoming drive-in until about 4 a.m. to ensure the fire stuck, police said.
Prosecutors suspect the trio — Rita Johnson, her daughter, Olivia Floyd, and son-in-law, Darryl Floyd — set fires and collected insurance at other rental properties before they were caught, Papalas said.
Among their mistakes: They pulled photos out of albums before setting the fire, according to evidence at their trial.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
The Detroit News spent more than three months investigating the toll of arson on Detroit. Investigations chief Joel Kurth used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain spreadsheets containing detailed records of more than 9,000 suspicious fires in Detroit from 2010 to mid-2013. The records were combined with Fire Department records as well as an inventory of all city parcels by The Detroit Blight Task Force to create detailed databases.
The series was reported by Kurth and business reporter Louis Aguilar. Photos and video were taken by Elizabeth Conley and Max Ortiz. Maps, graphics and online search tools were created by investigative reporter Christine MacDonald, digital innovation editor Tom Gromak and graphics editor Tim Summers.
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Staff Writer Christine MacDonald contributed