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The challenge of solving arson cases

Van Zandt: Were some of the Calif. wildfires man-made?

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  Arson behind the California wildfires?
Oct. 24: Arson may be responsible for multiple California wildfires threatening thousands of residents. Dan Abrams speaks with L.A. Times reporter Hector Becerra, L.A. County fire investigator Rick Price and NBC’s Michael Okwu.
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Clint Van Zandt

California wildfires continue to sweep across the state, with over 450,000 acres charred and at least 1,600 homes and many businesses reduced to burnt rubble. The economic losses are projected to reach $2 billion. While thousands of firefighters attempt to face down the flames fanned by roaring winds of up to 85 miles per hour, a small but steadily growing arson task force comprised of an ATF National response Team, FBI Evidence Response Teams, and state and local law enforcement agents are starting to sift through the still smoldering remains of the fires. They are also going through the ever increasing mound of information and evidence quickly being developed in this case— all in an attempt to determine if any of these devastating fires, responsible for 7 deaths was the result of an intentional human act.

Brush fires like these are many times the result of nature, such as a lightning strike, or of an accident, such as a downed power line. Or it's intentional and man made— such as the work of an arsonist. Local and federal investigators are involved in at least one investigation centered in Orange County, Calif., where they believe that the 20,000 acres burned so far in the Santiago blaze had at least three points of origin this past Sunday, something that is highly suspicious. One investigator has said the suspected arsonist knew exactly what he was doing. Now these same investigators must confirm their strong suspicions by investigation.

The thing about arson is that it's difficult to investigate. In fires, most if not all physical evidence of arson is consumed in the fire itself.

  The numbers

Arson is a frequent crime in the United States. In 2006 over 69,000 incidents of arson were reported, an increase of 2.1 percent over 2005 statistics. Statistically only 15 to 20 percent of arsons are solved by investigation. Arson is a difficult crime to investigate. Most if not all physical evidence of arson is consumed in the fire itself.

What makes an arsonist
Arson investigators and criminal profilers have developed psychological profiles for those who set fires. These profiles are based on known information about identified arsonists, but since most arsonists are never identified, there is much about the crime of arson and those who commit it that we simply don’t know. However, we do know that approximately 50 percent of the known arsonists have been under the age of 18. 

Determination of motive is key to any criminal investigation. In the case of arson, motive may include anger, revenge, or hate. In such cases, the criminal uses fire instead of physical assault to attack his victim. Other motives include arson for profit. For instance, the fire setter derives some benefit from the arson, perhaps an insurance payment or some other personal or financial reward. Over the centuries, some fires of historic proportion have been intentional acts of war. 

Possible motives
Arson could also be seen as the answer to a challenged homeowner who is about to lose his house due to foreclosure in this terrible housing market. Arson can also be committed to conceal evidence of another crime, or it can done as a form of political protest, such as the burning of abortion clinics by radical anti-abortion groups, or the torching of homes and businesses by a so-called domestic terrorist group such as the Earth Liberation Front, one that has described itself as “an eco-defense group engaged in economic sabotage and guerrilla warfare to stop the exploitation and destruction of the natural environment.”  International terrorists can also be suspects in such crimes, as arson can be an effective tool for those seeking to attack the personal, emotional and economic base of a country. 

And then there is the motive of vandalism or thrill seeking. Sometimes it's a stupid, meaningless act of juvenile delinquency done out of sheer boredom. And then there are copy cats whose motive may be represented by any of the above, but who sets his fire only after watching the results of the other ongoing fires. 

I’ll leave it up to the clinical psychologists to discuss the assorted psychological factors that contribute to these various motives, but many believe the sense of power that an arsonist derives from watching his “handiwork” provides him with a tremendous emotional and physical high similar to what others may get from the use of illegal drugs. 

Where investigators will start
From the investigative side of this ongoing disaster, federal agents, local officers, and criminal and geographic profilers will be looking for the epicenter of the fires. Where and how did the original fire or fires start?  Will they try to determine whether these fires were ignited along some continuing route? Might the arsonist live or work or have otherwise been going to or coming from a route along the path of the fires?

Investigators will also be looking for physical evidence that would suggest the work of a fire-setter, perhaps the presence of an accelerant or other evidence that might have been preserved near a potential crime scene, like tire tracks. In such a case investigators may be able to identify the make of tire and perhaps even the make of car which has those tires.  Anomalies in tire tracks, like shoe prints and fingerprints, can be forensically identified and potentially linked to an arson suspect. 

These are crimes that require and demand solution. A reward of $70,000 has already been offered to anyone who provides information that helps identify any potential fire setters. 

Let’s hope that a combination of good investigative techniques and a few loose lips will quickly determine if these fires — and the tremendous loss to hundreds of thousands of residents — was the result of an act of nature, some tragic unintentional accident, or the ultimate work of one or more individuals.

Clint Van Zandt is a former FBI Agent, behavioral profiler and hostage negotiator as well as an MSNBC Analyst. His web site provides readers with security related information.

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