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Posted December 16, 2013 EST

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Austin Fire Department Solves Arson Cases At High Rate
United States (Texas) - After stealing two cellphones and keys to limos parked downstairs at about 5 a.m., William Peyton Smith wanted to cover his theft, fire investigators said. He doused the floor of AAA Limousine in North Austin with gasoline, drizzled a trail of the fluid behind him down the stairs and lit a flame that would eventually destroy the second floor of the building.

The blaze is among the dozens of cases the Austin Fire Department's arson unit solves each year after piecing together DNA, burn patterns and accelerants that people used when setting intentional fires. The unit has cleared more arson cases than any of the five largest cities in Texas and twice the national average, according to state and federal data for 2012.

The unit credits properly trained investigators with extensive backgrounds in firefighting who are also peace officers for consistently surpassing the national average in clearing arson cases since at least 2009, including the AAA Limousine case, through arrests or other means.

"We have folks who are specifically trained in that and devoted to the research and complicated dirty work to get that crime proven and to get to that point to prosecute," said Chief Investigator Aaron Woolverton.

In 2012, 47 percent of the arson cases the section investigated were cleared with an arrest, citation or through other means, according to data available through the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reports. The national rate was 20 percent for that year.

Woolverton said across the country, many arson investigators are part of the police departments, while all major cities in Texas have the luxury of having the arson unit under their fire departments. In Austin, all arson investigators must move up the ranks to lieutenant firefighters and then go through police academy to learn the penal code.

Capt. Andy Reardon said that he can't speak for other Texas departments about why Austin is so successful in solving arson cases, but said that the city doesn't see as many fires and their case load per investigator is relatively low. For example, the Dallas Fire Department saw 581 arson cases last year while Austin saw 121, according to federal data.

The division is made up of 10 lieutenants and a dog named Leo who investigate arson fires. The two most common reasons people intentionally commit arson -- at least a second-degree felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison-- are revenge and insurance fraud.

The 164 arson cases this past fiscal year have included a man who investigators say set a pair of homes on fire on New Year's Day, two people who they say caused a drug-related explosion at an apartment (considered arson by authorities because it was while producing drugs), and a man who they say burned a large amount of papers, including his eviction notice, in the oven of his apartment.

If firefighters determine a fire could be arson, two investigators will usually be asked to respond. They will photograph the inside and outside of the structure extensively while eliminating accidental sources of fire, such as a candle, overheated appliance or food left on the stove.

Lt. Randy Elmore, who has been an investigator for about a year, said that arson clues include fires that have started at multiple locations and show evidence of an igniter fluid, which is often sniffed out by Leo. The samples are then sent to a lab. Any holes in the investigation are often filled in by witnesses.

Elmore remembers wanting to become an arson investigator after watching "Backdraft," a 1991 movie about a serial arsonist and the investigators who took him down. He admits his job is not like the movie and that the hardest part is asking the right questions and pursuing every piece of evidence -- skills that Woolverton says he drills into investigators.

Woolverton is especially proud of solving the AAA Limousine case because investigators had to thoroughly canvass the crime scene for DNA and accelerants and note the burn patterns on Smith's body to piece together what happened and charge him with arson.

Investigators were able to determine that after burning down the building off Interstate 35 near Braker Lane, a frenzied and partially naked Smith hopped into a limo, abandoning his pickup at the business, and drove about 20 miles to southeastern Travis County, where he flagged down a passerby who then called 911.

Investigators said that Smith did not have a motive to target the business and that he had initially said another man set Smith and the business on fire. But Woolverton said they proved Smith's story was a lie because the only part of the limo that had traces of skin and blood indicative of a person who had been burned was the driver's seat. Smith was the only driver of the limo, they said.

Smith's crime earned landed him six years in prison.

"The numbers speak for your work," Elmore said. "Arson is such a hard crime to prove in court, so I'd like to make sure I do a thorough job."

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Arson in Texas

Arsons solved by major Texas fire departments in 2012:

Austin: 121 arsons, 57 solved, 47%

Brownsville: 20 arsons, 6 solved, 30%

Dallas: 581 arsons, 132 solved, 23%

Houston: 754 arsons, 176 solved, 23%

El Paso: 94 arsons, 14 solved, 15%

San Antonio: 245 arsons, 14 solved, 6%

State total: 4,441 arsons, 896 cleared, 20%

Written by Austin American-Statesman

Courtesy of NewsEdge
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