Practical Suggestions for Catching the Firebug

Practical Suggestions for Catching the Firebug

First Find the Cause, Then the Motive, If Fire Is Incendiary—Four Things Must Be Proved to Establish the Guilt of the Arsonist

THE following article, according to Mr. Cooper, is arranged from information and opinions of several different authorities on Fire Prevention and Arson Prosecutions. Mr. Cooper has conducted and prosecuted many arson cases in Portland, and is well fitted to treat his subject from a practical standpoint.

The City of Portland maintains, along with the Fire Prevention Bureau, an Arson Squad, which is composed of two men, of which at least one is on duty at all times.

It is their duty to answer all alarms and investigate them in regard to cause, loss, insurance carried, insurance paid, values involved, etc., and to gather evidence in case of supposed incendiarism.

First Find Cause Then Motive If Incendiary

On arriving at a fire the first thing the investigator must do is to locate where the fire started. After the location of the start of the fire the next thing to do is find the cause of fire. In doing this it is necessary to eliminate the accidental possibilities one by one. That is if the cause is not apparent. Then in case the investigator has convinced himself the fire is of suspicious or incendiary origin, he must find a motive for the crime. And a crime it is, for every person guilty of arson is a potential murderer, for who knows when the fire bell rings but that some one or perhaps many may be burned to death, or that some one may lose his life under the wheels of the fire apparatus answering the alarm.

Incendiarism and arson is a very serious subject, and the gathering of evidence in the average case is hard and tedious work.

Webster defines an incendiary as one who sets fire to a building or property of another. There is a class of fires, and this class is by no means small, which is set by persons who are mentally unbalanced and known as pyromaniacs. Such persons are not morally responsible and motive cannot be imputed to their acts. They belong in hospitals or asylums.

Motives for Incendiary Fires

The records of the National Board of Fire Underwriters show that during the year 1918 there were 610 convictions for arson and burning in this country. This does not include convictions in three or four states from which returns have not been received. The motives which actuated the fires for which these convictions were obtained have been subdivided as follows:

To conceal evidence of another crime, 30; revenge or spite, 97; pyromania and other forms of insanity, 181; to defraud the insurer, 202.

This list does not include juvenile court cases covering those fires set by juveniles through a spirit of malicious mischief, weak-mindedness or a mania for excitement.

There are more fires set to conceal crime than is indicated by the number of convictions showing that as the motive, because prosecutors usually prefer to prosecute for the crime the incendiary sought to conceal than to prosecute him for arson. Arson has always been considered a most serious crime, and classed in the first degree carries with it the dealth penalty.

The man who sets fire to his own or another’s property in a thickly congested district always jeopardizes the life and property of hundreds of people. He is a serious menace to the community and every effort ought to be made to apprehend him and bring him to justice.

Must Prove Four Things to Establish Guilt

There appears to be a universal idea that “arson” and “burning to defraud” are difficult crimes to prosecute successfully. This is probably due to the fact that arson is a difficult crime to investigate owing to the fact that evidence of the crime itself is frequently destroyed by the fire. To develop a case of arson and justify a probability of conviction there are four things that must be established in order to prove the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt.

  1. The Fire. It is necessary to introduce evidence that the fire actually occurred at a certain time at a place within the jurisdiction of the court.
  2. Origin—Incendiary. Direct and positive evidence of some kind must be introduced to establish the fact that the fire was of incendiary origin. Every fire is presumed to be of accidental origin and it is necessary for the state to introduce positive evidence to overcome this presumption. Sometimes the incendiary origin of a fire can be shown by direct evidence such as the saturation of the premises with kerosene, gasoline or some other inflammable compound. Tt can be established by showing that there were two or three fires which were separate and distinct and having no connection with another.
  3. “There appears to be a universal idea that ‘arson’ and ‘burning to defraud’ are difficult crimes to prosecute successfully. This is probably due to the fact that arson is a difficult crime to investigate owing to the fact that evidence of the crime itself is frequently destroyed by the fire. To develop a case of arson and justify a probability of conviction there are four things that must be established in order to prove the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt: 1. The Fire. 2. Origin-Incendiary. 3. Motive. 4. Proof of Guilt.”

    In the investigation of a fire, care should always be taken to ascertain its character, in what part of the building it originated, how it burned, and other facts and circumstances which may be suggestive of its origin. The appearance of the interior of the building is important, as this frequently shows whether the fire was the result of accident or design. If articles of furniture have been so arranged as to retard the work of the firemen, or if evidence is found that a considerable part of the furniture, fixtures or stock had been removed previous to the fire, it indicated that same was the result of design.

    If the investigation shows that such articles were removed previous to the fire the importance of ascertaining their whereabouts and having them identified and photographed is necessary and cannot be overestimated. It sometimes happens that the remains of a plant arranged by the incendiary to cause or accelerate the fire is found in the building after it has been extinguished. It is highly important in the event that candles, oily rags, or things of that character are discovered, that they be left exactly as found until they can be photographed. It is extremely important that great care be exercised in handling such articles as candles, oily bottles or other things of this character, which were evidently handled by the incendiary. Such articles should always be carefully examined for evidence of finger prints.

    It is highly important to inspect the heating and electrical equipment of the building in order to be able to prove that the fire was not of accidental origin. All accidental cause should be eliminated insofar as possible. This should be done because a fire may be so suspicious as to indicate the act of an incendiary. In the case of State vs. Simonsen, 107 Cal. 347, the Court said: “It is quite possible, however. to have a building burned under such suspicious circumstances as to exclude the notion of the fire being the result of accident or natural causes. A building may be burned under such suspicious circumstances as to indicate the act of an incendiary and thus the corpus delicti established and the door opened for the defendant’s admissions and confessions.”

  4. Motive. It is extremely important, although not absolutely necessary, to establish a positive motive in the trial of a case of arson. The motive for the crime may be revenge, the desire to destroy the evidence of some other crime, or an attempt to defraud the insurer. Over-insurance is not always necessarv to prompt an attempt at burning to defraud. Straitened financial circumstances or a desire to change location or some other such motive may be sufficient to prompt the man criminally inclined to attempt a quick sale to some insurance company.
  5. It is quite important in all cases of arson in which a desire to defraud the insurer is the motive, that the value of the property destroyed be determined as accurately as possible. In cases where this property is not burned out of sight an inventory should be taken by some person who can qualify before the court as an expert on values.

  6. Proof of Guilt. It is necessary to show by facts or circumstances or both that the party under suspicion could and actually did set the fire in question. After the “corpus delicti” has been established in an arson trial every fact or circumstance tending to
  7. show any light on the case is usually admissible as evidence.

Should Interview Suspect

Do not under-estimate the importance of interviewing the party who is suspected of having caused the fire. In the trial of a criminal case the defendant is always accorded the opportunity of being heard and in the investigation of a crime an opportunity should be given to the suspected party to give his version of the matter, his theory as to the origin of the fire, his whereabouts at the time it occurred and anything else which is pertinent in your search for the truth, in the matter.

The demeanor, conduct, and acts of the person suspected of the crime, such as attempted flight, a desire to elude discovery, and anxiety to conceal the crime or evidence of it, are always important as indicative of a guilty mind. It is important to investigate every incriminating circumstance tending to show that the fire was of incendiary origin and that the accused was connected therewith, such as his acts, conduct and whereabouts at or near the time of the fire.

Some Important Things to Remember

Any act of preparation, or the possession by the accused of the means or instruments by which the fire was set, or his possession of goods proved to have been in the building immediately before the fire, or proof that he removed goods from the building immediately before it was burned is always important and admissible as evidence against him.

While it is usually impossible to introduce evidence of other fires on the part of the accused, it is frequently advisable to have this evidence available in order to establish motive, intent, absence of accident, or connected crime, etc., and to establish this, such evidence is frequently admissible.

There should be no leniency for the incendiary, nolet-up in the pursuit of the firebug. He is every man’s enemy and against him every protective engine of society should be used.—Civil Service. Portland. Ore.

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