Arson fires difficult, but not impossible to solve

Fire investigators say lots of evidence goes up in flames

Nearly a month later, Hamilton police and fire officials are still investigating the arson fire that killed Hamilton firefighter Patrick Wolterman on Dec. 28. The fire in a home on Pater Avenue was one of four intentionally set fires that damaged buildings in Hamilton in 2015.

There were 19,000 intentionally set fires across the U.S. in 2014, down 15.6 percent from 2013, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Arson accounted for 3.8 percent of all structure fires in 2014, and arsonists set fires that destroyed $729 million worth of property in 2014, up 10 percent from $663 million in 2013, according to the NFPA.

The State Fire Marshal’s Office and Hamilton police and fire departments have vowed to find the person or people responsible for the fire that killed Wolterman. A $25,000 reward has been offered for information leading to the identification and conviction of those responsible.

While city police and fire officials could not tell the Journal-News how many of the four arson fires set last year had actually been solved, Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser said arson cases can be very tricky to close.

“A lot of evidence doesn’t survive,” Gmoser said. “DNA does not do well in a fire, or footprints or fingerprints.”

The county prosecutor said in many cases, the crime is planned and shrouded in secrecy.

“It does not ordinarily involve witnesses on the street observing the crime,” Gmoser pointed out.

Cases are often built methodically with circumstantial evidence, which can include a motive such as covering up a crime or financial gain.

“The mental intent is something that is proven by circumstantial information that often comes forward later after the fire cause is found,” Gmoser said.

An added component is the creativity of the people in starting fires, he said. Items can be purchased at the grocery store to start a fire that takes a trained eye to detect, Gmoser said.

“But that doesn’t mean they aren’t solvable. They are solvable over time. And I have always said there are not secrets in Butler County,” Gmoser said.

Middletown police have charged nine people with arson and eight with aggravated arson since 2011. Last year, there were eight arson fires in Middletown that destroyed structures, according to city records obtained by the Journal-News.

Middletown Fire Chief Paul Lolli said his department and police detectives have teamed up to form a taskforce for just such investigations.

“We have to rely on our investigators,” Lolli said. “Sometimes the evidence does burn up, so a very good investigator that is methodical is important.”

Middletown Deputy Chief Jeff Spaulding, who is a longtime fire investigator, said while it is true plenty of evidence can be lost in fire, that doesn’t mean a cause can’t be found.

“Just because a building is burned to the ground doesn’t mean there isn’t evidence,” Spaulding said, noting sometimes it takes lab testing to find the proof.

“It can take a while. We have cases open for two or three years, but we are still working on them,” he said.

In 2010, Fairfield business man Michael Tuley was convicted of complicity to arson and insurance fraud for a blaze that destroyed his Dixie Highway store. He paid a longtime employee to burn down Fun Merchandise, then tried to collect insurance money.

Hamilton Fire Investigator Trevor Snider, a former police officer, said “actually proving a fire was set is not as difficult as finding the responsible person. You have to be sure, know for a fact and have a way to prove it.”

Snider agreed it can be a long process.

“You really can’t go into a fire scene already having made your mind up on how it started,” Snider said. “You might be swayed the wrong way.”

Hamilton Police Capt. Marc McManus said the department is continuing to receive tips about the fatal Pater Avenue fire. Anyone with information is asked to call the police department at 513-868-5811 ext. 2002.