The Crime of Arson

The Crime of Arson

Eighth and Concluding Article of a Series Which Covered Some Outstanding Cases of Incendiarism and Their Detection

IN presenting cases for prosecution in court, one should familiarize oneself with all court decisions bearing on the law which might be involved in the particular case; one should make a brief digest of all decisions having to do with fire cases so that they will be readily accessible when the occasion arises.

Disregard of the Law Was Found After This Fire Although no cooking of food was permitted in the rooms of this buikling, plenty of utensils were found during the investigation of the fire.

To illustrate the value of this procedure, some of the decisions are briefly related which arc used in many cases which arise in Massachusetts. Take for instance, the case of Commonwealth vs. Asherowski, 196 Massachusetts 342. This case arose in 1907 and the facts were briefly— a fire was discovered in a business house, the building securely locked; the presence of flammable liquids, trailers and great preparation to spread the fire and much evidence of incendiarism, with the owner’s and occupants’ whereabouts accounted for and the keys in their possession. Prior to this particular case there bad been fires with a similar set of facts and the owner and occupants being able to set up an alibi accounting for their presence in some point other than the scene of the fire, it was difficult for the prosecutor to secure convictions.

In the Asherowski case a new plan was adopted by the Fire Inspector who charged John Doe, whose correct name and address were unknown to him, with setting the fire, and charged the owner Asherowski with being an accessory before the fact. The case was tried before a jury which returned a verdict of guilty. On an appeal to the Supreme Court, the Court upheld the verdict and ruled that some person procured to do so by the defendant set the fire— that no one else could have done it without the defendant’s knowledge. That is to say. the Court laid stress ou the fact of the place being locked, great preparation of incendiarism and the keys being in the possession of the defendant. This was sufficient to show that if the defendant did not set the fire, whoever set it had to do so with the knowledge and assistance of the defendant.

As a result of this Asherowski case Fire Inspectors immediately proceeded in numerous cases on similar complaints and have met with great success. Many appeals were taken to the Supreme Court subsequent to the one already mentioned, but this case has continually been re-affirmed and additional law laid down by the Supreme Court gave the prosecution still more power along the lines already stated.

Finances and Fraud

For instance, in the case of Commonwealth vs. Herbert Cooper, 264 Massachusetts 368, facts similar to the Asherowski case, the Supreme Court said:

“It well may be found in certain circumstances that one in easy financial condition might still set the fire to defraud an insurance company.”

In this case the defendant had shown large bank deposits of actual cash. Other good law in this case: “evidence of the cost of store fixtures when new some months before the fire not admissable, but that the only pertinent evidence was as to the value of such fixtures at the time of the fire.” Also “evidence of breaking and entering in the building where the store of the defendant was located at another time was incompetent.”

Proving Over-Insurance

Commonwealth vs. Selesnick—272 Massachusetts 354. “Policies other than those mentioned in the indictment may be properly admitted in evidence to show full amount of insurance.” This being for the purpose of proving over-insurance. Evidence is admissible to show defendant’s need of money.

Commonwealth vs. Alba—271 Massachusetts 333. “The intent to injure the insurance company may be established even though the persons expected to compel it to pay money to others than himself.” This is where someone other than the person holding the insurance policy set the fire. The court referred to the Asherowski case for support of its decision and added additional support in the case of Commonwealth vs. Kaplan, 238 Massachusetts 250 at Page 254, “A direct benefit to the defendant is not made a necessary element of the crime.”

Another and a more forcible point was brought out in the Alba case, Heretofore inspectors would be somewhat disturbed if a door were found open at the time of the fire, as this fact would lessen the chances of proving that the defendant had the exclusive opportunity to set the fire. In this Alba case, where a door was found open by the firemen, the court said “the testimony of the defendants as to locking the doors, when considered with the evidence of those who responded to the fire alarm that the doors were found unlocked, would justify an inference that the person who set the fire had gained access to the building with the keys of the defendants.”

Financial Worries

Commonwealth vs. Haddad—250 Massachusetts 391, Page 397; “Evidence to show his financial embarrassment or that he was in need of money was competent.”

Commonwealth vs. Goldstein—114 Massachusetts 272, Page 277; “It is not material in whose name the goods were insured. The crime consisted in burning them with intent to injure the insurer, whether the defendant, or any other person, owned them or procured them to be insured.”

Commonwealth vs. Hudson—97 Massachusetts 565 at Page 566. Further substantiated by Commonwealth vs. Farmer—218 Massachusetts 506. “Evidence was admitted to show that the defendant had a strong peculiar motive to commit the crime with which he was charged. This evidence, we think, was admissible. It tends to repel the presumption which exists that a man will not commit a crime without a reason, inducement or temptation. The evidence showed undoubtedly a motive, peculiar and .special to the person accused.”

No Fire Started

Until recently there has been only one decision in Massachusetts concerning a case of an attempt to burn and this was not entirely strong. It was the case of Commonwealth vs. Peaslee—177 Massachusetts 267. The facts of this were briefly, that preparations had been made to set a fire and the person had been requested to set such fire and had completed preparations, returned to his home and later started out again to set the fire. En route he changed his mind and did not set the fire. He and the owner who hired him were arrested and charged with the attempt. They were found guilty and on an appeal, the Supreme Court ruled that there had not been an attempt, as no fire had actually been started, but that had the defendant who was to set the fire, been apprehended at the scene and frustrated in the attempt by the authorities or frightened away, it might have been different. The Court also rules that the owner could be guilty of soliciting the other to commit the felony. Therefore the question of an attempt to start the fire was somewhat vague.

On the adoption of the Model Arson Law by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which contains a provision that an attempt shall be construed where there is the placing or distribution of any flammable explosive or combustible material or substance or any device in or against the building in an arrangement or preparation with intent eventually to wilfully and maliciously set fire to or burn such building, this situation was clarified.

Another Fire Plant That Failed to Function Properly In this case, bolts of cloth were wrapped around pasteboard boxes so that the cloth would burn more easily. As usual, the bolts of cloth burned only on the ends and outside.

Following the adoption of this law a case arose in which the facts briefly were these: A man was hired to burn a certain hotel. He went to the scene, gained admittance and made extensive preparations to set a fire, but before lighting the candle, which had been placed at a point to furnish the initial ignition, he was apprehended and as a result he and five others were indicted. Convictions were secured before a jury and an appeal was taken. While the facts of this particular case would justify a conviction under the old case of Commonwealth vs. Peaslee, as the defendant had been apprehended in the attempt, the Superior Court went further and laid down the law that the attempt is now covered by statute and the particular case comes within the statue. The Court said among other things “the statute has changed the pre-existing law. The purpose of its plain words is to declare a comprehensive definition of attempt broad enough to include such acts as shown to have been performed by the defendant. That is apparent from a simple reading of its words and an interpretation of them in their ordinary sense.” Consequently in future cases of an attempt, no difficulty is anticipated because of this decision, previously mentioned, upholding the statute.

This case, by the way, is Commonwealth vs. John Mehales and can be found in advance sheets 1963 only recently published, not having as yet reached the regularly compiled reports.

In this particular case an interesting point arose, in which an appeal was taken on the grounds that Mehales was hired to set the fire by the owner, and, therefore, doing it with the consent of the owner, there could be no malice against such owner.

This appeal no doubt was taken because of an old case Commonwealth vs. Makely, 131 Massachusetts 421, in which the courts said “That it would not be arson for the owner to burn his own dwelling, so consequently the person whom the owner procured to burn it could not be guilty of arson.” This decision was correct at the time because the existing statute and common law held that the burning must be malicious, but, on the adoption of the Model Arson Law, the statute was changed whereby it was illegal not only for one to burn another’s building, but also illegal for the owner to burn his own building.

Therefore, in the Mehales case, the court laid down the rule that the Makely case is no longer in effect, because now by the terms of the present statute the malicious burning of a building by the owner is mafic a crime, and added, “The malice now, under the statute, is not necessarily against the owner of the building, but that the malice, which characterizes all acts done with an evil disposition, a wrong and unlawful motive or purpose the wilful doing of an injurious act without lawful excuse. Malice in law’ is present in the case at bar because the design and intent of the defendant was to set the fire for the purpose of enabling the owner to collect insurance. There w’as malice in law towards the insurer or insurers. That is enough to constitute the statutory crime.”

The following additional references as useful ones are cited: Commonwealth vs. Vellucci, advance sheets No. 200.3; Commonwealth vs. Bade, advance sheets No. 461; Commonwealth vs. Jatfas, advance sheets No. 1969; Commonwealth vs. McCarthy, 119 Massachusetts 354; Commonwealth vs. Cali, 247 Massachusetts 20. Also Chapter 266, Section 111A, of the Tercentenary Kdition, General Laws of Massachusetts; also Chapter 192, Acts of 1932 of Massachusetts.

Briefly, this gives you a picture of how court decisions are used to very good advantage in Massachusetts.

Such a digest of cases also is valuable in forcibly bringing points concerning cases to the attention of Prosecutors who alwas appreciate ready case decisions that will support some legal point that might, if unsupported, weaken the case.

The Crime of Arson


The Crime of Arson

Seventh Article of a Series Which Will Cover Outstanding Cases of Incendiarism and How They Were Handled

A New Use for Cake Cups 1. -Set up of candles, cake cups, and tissue paper trailers found in tenement where fire occurred. 2. -Cup cake paper shells of the same type found in owner’s pantry on lower floor.

Too many electric flatirons, and the receding tide on a nearby beach, disclosed a clever attempt to have an incendiary fire appear as having been accidently set by an overheated flatiron. The owner of a summer camp purchased a cheap electric flatiron for the purpose of allowing it to overheat to set fire to the camp, but this particular iron, although left turned on for several hours, failed to get hot enough to set the fire.

When the owner returned and found that his scheme had not worked, he threw the iron into the water in front of the cottage. He then purchased another electric flatiron and again tried his scheme. The same thing happened, and, again, he tossed the second iron into the water. However, a third flatiron did overheat and caused the fire.

When the investigator was called to check up on the fire, the tide had gone out and disclosed the two new flatirons in the sand. These were traced and found to have been sold to the owner, who, when confronted with the facts, confessed.

Trapped by Hole

In another case involving a bit and a hole, that of a fire which occurred in a small store is interesting. The owner, not having the nerve to start the fire inside of his place of business, made a hole in the wall, cutting this hole by boring a circle with a bit. He then extended a trailer through the hole to a pile of rubbish in a common hallway, to which other tenants had access. A lighted candle was then placed in the rubbish with the hope that it would ignite the rubbish and burn along the trailer through the hole into his store.

A police officer on the heat, trying doors, discovered the candle burning in the hallway and called the Fire Department.

The setup was then discovered and an examination of the hole in the wall showed that it had been made from the inside of the store, as the point of the bit where it had “lapped” over was noticeable at several points, so that once again clever detection of bit marks ruined a storekeeper’s plans.

Too Many Candles

The discovery of lighted candles that have not burned down or candles that have gone out have furnished valuable evidence in many cases. It has been shown that the ordinary candle will burn about an inch an hour, but the rate of burning depends upon the atmospheric conditions within the room where it is set. Where more than one candle has been placed, one will probably burn more rapidly than the other, due to the fact that there is more oxygen near it, and the one that first starts a fire may be entirely consumed, although the others might be found.

Take the case of a meat market fire. A candle placed in the rear room did its work, but two placed in a refrigerator failed to burn down and were discovered by the firemen, after they had extinguished the fire in the rear room. This was due to the fact that there was a lack of oxygen in the refrigerator.

Caught With the Evidence

In another candle case, a police officer patrolling his beat observed a flicker inside a tailor shop and thinking a fire was just starting, summoned the Fire Department. When the firemen arrived, entrance was gained through an open transom and then the discovery was made that there was a lighted candle burning in a waste basket, surrounded by inflammable material. Trailers extended throughout the shop which had been well prepared for a fire.

When the fire investigator arrived, in answer to a call from the Fire Department, he resorted to a little strategy to trap the owner, as the building was securely locked. The owner was called on the telephone and notified that there was something wrong in his store and would he please come down in order to attend to the matter. He arrived after some delay and was met by a uniformed police officer who stood outside the building. Entrance having l>een previously gained through the transom, there was nothing to indicate that anyone had been in the shop. However, the investigator and another officer had secreted themselves inside, behind a counter, where thev could observe the burning candle in the waste basket.

The uniformed officer on the outside casually remarked to the owner:

“Well. I’ll leave and turn the place over to you.”

Whereupon, the owner unlocked the door, as the officer departed, and went directly to the waste basket where he took the candle and extinguished it, placing it in his pocket. He then began to gather up the trailers. The hidden officers emerged and made their arrest.

Substitution of Cars

Burning of automobiles to collect insurance has not proved profitable, due to the fact that insurance companies will pay only the second-hand value of the car which, in most cases, is below the actual value to the owner. However, to circumvent this status, a ring of crooks devised a scheme to realize a profit on such burnings. They would go to an automobile junk yard and purchase a wrecked car of a late type and tow it away to a hideout under the pretense of wanting to get some of the parts. Then they would steal a car of the same make and take it to the hideout.

Showing How the Wood Was Matched to Convict Suspect 1.—Piece of wood which had been cut out of upright found in owner's tenement replaced into this upright, showing the perfect match of wood. 2.—Paper of matches which was held in mouse trap. 7. 3.—Fastener which held bell 4 onto pin on top of alarm clock. 5.—Remains of tape found in tenement of owner. 6.—Sandpaper sewn onto weather stripping. 8.—Nail which held thread spool.

A short time later, thev would change the motor and serial numbers, erasing the numbers on the stolen car and substituting the numlters of the wrecked car. Later, this stolen car would be registered under the new numbers and insured against loss or damage by fire. This car would then be burned and the amount collected on insurance would he a fancy profit.

The Set-up All Ready for Action 1.—Alarm clock held on board with tape, and a string attached to the hell striker. 2.—Trailer of tissue paper attached to 6. a paper of matches. 3.Weather stripping with sandpaper sewn onto it to scratch matches. 4.—Elastic bands furnishing tension on weather strip which passes over threat! spool. 5. 6.—Matches held in mouse trap.

This scheme, however, was discovered when a careful investigator, checking the motor number, found the changes. Thus, this racket was short-lived.

Importance of Odors

Previously in this article, attention was called to the fact that where inflammable materials are used and the odors are detected, it is important to remember what these odors are, because there may be a sudden flash or explosion, which would destroy all of the evidence. In a particular case, where rubber cement was spread about the tile floor and marble counters of an ice cream parlor, the firemen, upon entering, detected the odor, but the admission of air soon made an explosive mixture and there was a flareback which forced the firemen to retreat. The fire spread rapidly and burned all the evidence.

However, a determined investigator was not to be baffled and, upon learning that the firemen had entered some distance into the building, thought possibly that rubber cement on the floor would have stuck to the firemen’s rubber boots. An examination of the boots of several firemen disclosed that this was the fact. From the soles of the boots, sufficient rubber cement was secured to furnish evidence. As a matter of fact, a pair of boots were retained as evidence and produced in court, showing the film of rubber cement upon the soles.

Another Candle Set-up

A man who conceived the idea of setting a fire by means of candles thought that if he placed the candles in paper cup cake shells, which he secured from his wife’s pantry, his crime would not be discovered because he believed that the cup cake holders would be destroyed in the fire, His well-laid plans went wrong, however, because one candle burned faster than the others, starting the fire which resulted in an alarm being sounded. Upon the arrival of the firemen, three unburned candles were found perched in the paper holders, with trailers of tissue paper attached. The owner was connected with the candles by the discovery of several similar cup cake shells in the pantry of his home.

A Jig Saw Puzzle That Convicted the Maker 1.—Large piece of sandpaper found in the owner's tenement with the trademark showing. 2.—Small strip of sandpaper cut from 3 to allow 3 to pass more freely between holder over the matches. 3.—Sandpaper sewn onto the weather stripping. Parts 1, 2, and 3 are arranged in the position to complete the trademark.

An Alarm Clock Trap

A cleverly arranged fire trap, consisting of an alarm clock which, when the alarm sounded, was to scratch some matches, failed to function because too great a tension had been placed on the scratching arrangement by an elastic band, the spring of the alarm striker being insufficient to relieve this tension.

The alarm clock was fastened on a piece of board by means of tape which the firemaker expected would burn in the fire and thus no fastening would be found. A paper of matches was held under the scratching arrangement by a small mouse trap which was attached to a piece of wood by means of a tape. The tape was extended over a thread spool which had been arranged on a nail in another “upright” to allow the scratcher freedom of motion. All parts of this contrivance would have burned in the fire except the alarm clock, but this all failed because the bell striker on the alarm clock did not move the scratcher back and forth.

This setup was found in an upper tenement of a three-story building, the owner being the occupant of a lower floor. In his tenement were found pieces of wood from which the parts of the trap had been constructed. The “upright,” which contained the thread spool, had been cut out to allow admission of the spool on a nail. The piece which had been cut out was found and matched very nicely into the “upright.” The alarm clock bell and fastener were also found, as well as the remains of the tape. A piece of sandpaper, from which had been cut the strip which was sewn onto the piece of weather stripping, was also found in this tenement and it was proved that the strip, which was to scratch the matches, had been cut from the original piece by matching up the label, this strip having been cut in the middle of this label.