Inside Arson Squad: Hectic days, senseless fires

Investigators say Detroiters' mindsets must change along with tactics

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Detroit – The trouble began as it always does, with a spark.

Then flames and confusion. Fire trucks sped one way. Three people fled the burning house in the other direction. Some carried belongings. They were in no mood for questions from two rookie arson investigators.

"I don't want to talk. I got punk warrants," one man said. His friend didn't break stride, yelling: "Talk to the white woman! She started it."

Inside, the Brightmoor home had no furnace, oven or refrigerator. But there was a gas can by the front door. It was mid-afternoon and the tiny bungalow on Beaverland near Fenkell was the sixth suspicious house fire of the day.

So it goes for the Detroit Fire Department's Arson Squad. The Detroit News spent a week in December with its investigators, who are trying to reverse a tide of history and neglect that has made setting fires an everyday occurrence in Detroit.

They faced fires set to settle feuds, scam charities or escape trouble — and many set for no clear reason.

"It's just the backdrop of the city: This is Stage 3, Stage 4 cancer. Right now, we're just trying to stabilize things," said Lt. James Hill-Harris, a 14-year fire veteran who joined the arson squad after his father, firefighter Walt Harris, died while fighting an intentionally set blaze on Detroit's east side in 2008.

The Beaverland fire was out in minutes. No one was hurt. But the home was destroyed, joining three others on the block that are open to trespass in a neighborhood dotted with newer homes and burned-out ones.

The fire was a low priority. Unless someone steps forward or investigators catch a break, it's unlikely to be solved.

That's because, on any day, investigators have 15-20 ongoing cases. But every day in Detroit, eight to 12 more buildings suspiciously burn. Fires that cause injuries or deaths go to the top of the pile.

"Just another BS squatter fire," said Lt. Joe Cron, a 10-year firefighter who joined the arson squad last summer.

He shoveled ashes for 20 minutes, pinpointed the origin of the fire, tacked a reward poster on the house and shut the door.

"Arson is like jaywalking here. People have gotten away with it for so long that some don't think it's a crime anymore," Cron said.

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‘It isn’t glamorous’

The city’s 10 arson investigators dig through charred debris, work 10-hour days

Arson Chief Charles Simms got his job last year after selling Mayor Mike Duggan on his Powerpoint plan to dramatically reduce arson.

Much of the plan relies on dividing the city into quadrants, assigning investigators to each one and prioritizing cases to increase arrests. At its core is a simple message: Arson isn't acceptable anymore.

"Bad people should go to jail," said Simms, a 28-year fire veteran and 15-year arson investigator. "This is about changing the mindset. Arsonists need to know that we are coming for you."

After one year, Simms says he is as hopeful as ever. Last year, suspicious fires — those of intentional and unknown causes — declined 14 percent, city records show. There was a similar decline in January, he said.

Everyone agrees he has his work cut out for him. Arson has vexed Detroit for 50 years. In the 1980s, the city became synonymous with "Devil's Night," when as many as 800 fires burned around Halloween. Even now, small groups of tourists come to Detroit to listen to police scanners and photograph fires.

The son of a single mother, Simms grew up on the east side and joined the fire department when he was 19. After years in the field, he now has an office at public safety headquarters at Third and Michigan. Its decorations are few: candy on a table, commendations on the wall and a massive white board listing closed cases in red ink.

Simms said 2014 was a good year: He's established a tip line, secured grant money for billboards and new equipment and got some big convictions.

He inherited a decimated unit. As Detroit slid to bankruptcy, the arson squad dwindled: from 20 investigators in 2001 to seven last year. Now, there are 10, including Cron and two others who need to complete training to become certified. The city budget increases the unit to 14 investigators.

The job is open to firefighters, but it isn't for everyone.

"So much of this job is getting on your boots, getting a shovel and digging through charred debris ... to make sense out of chaos," said Capt. Patrick McNulty, a 29-year fire veteran. "It isn't glamorous."

Arson investigators trade the camaraderie of the firehouse for the quiet of cubicles. They graduate from the police academy, which takes about five months. The pay isn't much better and the hours are worse: Four 10-hour days per week compared to two 24-hour ones for firefighters.

Union rules allow them to return to firefighting in six months if they don't like the job. Last year, three recruits went through the extensive training before deciding the job wasn't for them.

As Simms tried to fill vacancies, Wayne County's budget problems cut the number of prosecutors handling arson cases from two to one.

"Chuck (Simms) is a good guy. He's aggressive, he's got good ideas and he's willing to take chances," said Mark Wheeler, a 20-year arson investigator who retired in 2013 and now investigates fires for insurance companies.

"But unless you have the budget and hire more people, it's just impossible to do more with less. We've never had enough arson investigators."

Scam for charity

How it works: Rent a home, set it on fire, collect 3 nights in a hotel and maybe $1,400

Insurance fraud is the top known motive for the fires. Revenge is No. 2. Some even burn their own homes to stay a few nights in a nice hotel.

On a day Lt. Joe Crandall followed leads on seven open cases, he returned to a charred white bungalow on Roselawn in northwest Detroit.

It caught fire during the dawn hours of Thanksgiving. A single mother and her two children had nowhere to go. The Red Cross helped ?them get a holiday meal at a shelter, put them up in a hotel in Southfield for three nights and connected them with another charity to apply for $1,400 to start life anew.

The case seemed like a tragedy. Clues suggested otherwise.

"We are calling this one the Red Cross fraud," said Crandall, an 11-year arson squad veteran.

Walking through the home, he noticed two distinct piles of clothes, rags and trash. They were blackened, as were the adjacent walls and floor. The burn patterns suggested both piles were set afire separately, allowing flames to grow and consume the house, Crandall figured.

Another clue: Neighbors said the woman put most of her belongings in the garage the day before. The biggest clue: The Red Cross gave assistance to the woman earlier in August when she was burned out of another rental home, nine miles away on Fenton in the Old Redford neighborhood.

Numbers aren't available, but it's an old scam, McNulty said. Rent a home or squat in one. Get some cheap furniture. Set it on fire. Call the Red Cross for help.

"You see it more around Christmas," McNulty said. "Everyone wants a little more money around Christmas."

La Forice Nealy, chief operating officer of the Southeastern Michigan Regional Chapter of the American Red Cross, said he's unaware of the scam. He said the group does see an uptick in relief during the holidays, responding to about 100 Detroit fires around Christmas.

A warrant has been issued for the 38-year-old woman. She's lived in about a dozen places since 2000, is on probation in Macomb County and has served time for fraud and other charges.

A few days before the first fire in August, she was led out of the home in handcuffs, neighbors told investigators. Her children were left alone until a neighbor took them in. Soon after the woman returned, the house burned.

A few months later, she started telling friends she was going to burn the home on Roselawn for the "Red Cross hook-up," according to the warrant.

A fire for every season

Depending on the weather, car fires, vacant home torching or space heater fires are prevalent

Fire follows seasons in Detroit.

From January to April, car fires are common, Crandall said. Women use tax returns to buy cars, he said. The autos make them less dependent on their men. So the men torch the cars to destroy the women's independence, Crandall said.

Summer to Halloween is the season for torching vacant homes. In winter, arson gives way to accidental fires from space heaters.

Revenge fuels fires in all seasons. Since 2013, it's been a motive in roughly a quarter of suspicious fires with known motives, according to Fire Department data.

"Fire became one of the easiest ways to get your justice," said Capt. Winston Farrow, a 27-year fire veteran who has spent 14 years in the arson squad.

"It didn't mean it was right, but a lot of people realized it's the only way to get satisfaction. It's revenge for a drug beef or an assault or a boyfriend cheating or 'this guy owes me money' or 'this guy stole my McDonald's sandwich.'"

In late November, four military veterans were displaced when their group home burned on Oakfield near Eight Mile and Southfield. A new tenant had arrived the previous week.

Before the fire, clothes and other items went missing. Words were exchanged. The new arrival was set to be evicted when someone left four oven mitts on the stove and lit the burners.

The tenant appeared unannounced at Public Safety Headquarters in December. He wanted help from a charity and insisted he knew little about the fire. After 20 minutes of questioning, he began to contradict himself.

"Wait ... You don't think I had anything to do with this?" he told an investigator. "Honestly, I don't like fires. My mother set me and my sister on fire. I'm deathly afraid of fires. Why would I set a house fire?"

That afternoon, investigators were checking his alibi when they were diverted to the squatter fire in Brightmoor. Their shift was about to end when the radio crackled.

"Three burned alive in a car fire. Arson requested."

Department protocol requires arson investigators probe every fatal fire, even those that are quickly determined accidental. So they drove across town to Charlevoix and Lakewood. Three men were dead inside the charred hull of a Mercury Marauder. It was going 100 miles an hour, police said, when it struck a tree and burst into flames.

One of the cousins had purchased the car earlier that day.

The veterans home fire remains unsolved.

Days of problems, progress

Locating suspects sometimes hindered by lack of software, volume of cases

Some days, working cases is like triage. Other days, they come together perfectly.

In early December, an east-side apartment complex caught fire. Unlike many apartments, it had sprinklers that worked. And unlike most, it had surveillance cameras that captured images of the crime.

The video showed a man dressed in white holding a bleach bottle. He took his time pouring a liquid along a hallway. Moments later, the hallway was in flames. Two dogs scurried from the hall into an apartment. The man in white slowly walked down the stairs, out the door.

Hours after releasing the footage to the media, one tipster identified the arsonist. Investigators wanted one more confirmation before seeking a warrant.

The tip line rang again. Simms hovered as McNulty spoke on the phone. Before them was a pink piece of paper. It contained the name of the suspect: Marvelle Walker.

"Me and him had problems a long time ago," the man on the phone said. "He shot me but I ain't never snitched on him about that."

Who is he? McNulty asked. Simms held his breath.

"Marvelle Walker," the man said.

Simms pumped his fist and exchanged high-fives.

Walker was on parole from prison, where he served time for armed robbery. He was already facing new charges for drugs.

That afternoon, he was arrested at a diner on Harper. Arson investigators squeezed into a cubicle downtown to watch a live video stream of Walker's interrogation by Hill-Harris and another fire detective, Dennis Richardson.

Walker seemed dazed. People beat him up and stole his drugs, he said. So he carried gas everywhere. When they came for him, he lit a fire so he could escape, he told investigators.

"I ain't even lying, they want to try to kill me. What the hell am I supposed to do," Walker said.

During the interrogation, Walker rambled and contradicted himself but refused to sign a confession. He is in jail awaiting a mental exam.

Arrests don't always come together so quickly, especially in a city emerging from bankruptcy.

A few days later, five investigators and one captain spent an afternoon trying to arrest suspects with warrants for arson. The top target was a 46-year-old man accused of beating his girlfriend with a baseball bat, pouring peroxide in her eye and trying to set her on fire.

"He tried to blind her. He tried to kill her. I want him," Hill-Harris told other investigators reviewing arrest plans in a conference room.

The day got off to a late start. The squad's computers have old software. Only one could print photos of suspects. The day was lost because the city of Detroit had allowed its subscription to lapse to a public records database used by police.

For hours that afternoon, a convoy of investigators in unmarked trucks searched for suspects. The addresses were old and outdated because investigators didn't have access to the database.

They banged on doors. Each time, the result was the same. No luck. They returned to the station shaking their heads.

By week's end, there were another 30 suspicious fires. One ruined Christmas for two single mothers who shared a home that was torched to cover up the theft of TVs.

Investigators remain optimistic that things are getting better.

"There will be a time when Detroit isn't burning," Hill-Harris said.

jkurth@detroitnews.com | (313) 222-2513 | Twitter: @cityhallinsider

More in this series:

Detroit pays high price for siege of arsons

Map/database: Search Detroit's arson fires by ZIP code

Data show Detroit is arson capital

Coming Friday:

Firefighter's death prompts son to fight arson

Solutions to arson controversial

Coming Saturday:

Even Heidelberg fires tough to crack

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