Arson Plot Backfires On Suspect

Arson Plot Backfires On Suspect

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Remains of two-story combination boiler room and apartment testifies to strength of explosion of natural gas that was piped into building by suspect.

Missoula Fire Deportment photos.

Part of garden hose used to pipe gas into boiler room is held by Fire Marshal, M.E. Fite.Garden hose connection taped to gas pipe which was rigged by suspect.

An intensive investigation by Missoula, Mont., fire investigators has resulted in a 12-count felony indictment against a man injured in an August 12 explosion and fire.

The man, according to Assistant Chief Jack Reed of the Missoula Fire Department, was a bookkeeper at LoyolaSacred Heart school and lived in an apartment above the heating plant.

An elaborate embezzlement and arson scheme literally backfired, it was charged, when the suspect left the brick structure for several hours while an estimated 80 cubic feet an hour of natural gas filled the building through a garden hose attached to a gas line.

Suspect tossed by blast

The suspect is accused of returning about 5 a.m. and, because there was no fire, lighting a match. This caused an explosion which threw him from the structure and demolished the brick boiler building. The suspect pulled an alarm box and two units under the command of Battalion Chief Donald Peterson responded.

Peterson called a general alarm, which is an automatic call-back of nearly 40 off-duty fire fighters. They had the blaze contained within 20 minutes.

Chief Robert E. Kelly noticed that the Suspect’s three cars were parked half a block from the fire scene instead of in their usual spot in the garage near the boiler room building and he called for an arson investigation.

Three investigators, headed by Fire Marshal M. E. Fite, worked on the case and through Financial records checks and some non-fire investigating, they came up with evidence to establish a motive for the fire.

Handled school money

Reed detailed some of the findings:

“The suspect was employed by Loyola-Sacred Heart as sort of a caretakerbookkeeper and had unsupervised control of incoming monies and outgoing checks.

“He had a furnished apartment in the furnace building and conveniently for him, the records of the institution were in the apartment and destroyed by the fire.

“Checks subpoenaed from the suspect’s personal checking account showed he spent far more than his income at the school or from any other source that could be established. Included in the warrant for the suspect’s arrest is a $13,332 embezzlement charge and, of course, arson,” concluded Reed.

Evidence uncovered

Other bits of evidence turned up by the investigators included:

The suspect was a “work-study” student from the University of Montana and received $70.46 per month because he qualified for financial aid. However, officials said, he owned three cars and told friends he had a wealthy father. It was charged that checks to the suspect had been altered to read as high as $1970.46.

The suspect claimed a loss of $25,000 in personal property due to the fire, including 46 pairs of shoes and several hundred pairs of pants and shirts.

Two metal cans with flammable liquid traces were found inside the living room after the fire, investigators reported.

In the Missoula fire, a gut feeling on Kelly’s part started the investigative process and trained investigators not only found the elaborate garden hose setup, but were able to compile enough evidence to bring charges for other crimes in addition to arson. Those charges, investigators pointed out, established a motive for the arson.

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