The Crazy World of Arthur Brown Redux
September 1, 2009 7:13 PM   Subscribe

Vermont Mystery Filter: Help me prove it was arson.

We have lived in our house in rural Vermont for over 20 years. A mile up the road from our house is a piece of property by a stream. When we first moved in, the property had two buildings on it. A cabin and a small house. About 18 years ago the cabin burnt down and the owners refurbished the house and made it bigger. 3 years later the house burned down. The owners sold the property to someone who built another house in a different location on the property across the stream and up a hill. It was a modern expensive house. The owners became underwater with the mortgage and were looking to sell. Four years ago they were both at work and came home to find the house was on fire and a total loss. The daughter of a couple down the road bought the property and over time has rebuilt the house on the foundation. The $300,000 figure listed in the article is low. Friday my wife was driving home and the police stopped her and said the house was on fire and was again a total loss. The officer said the property was "cursed".

I don't believe in curses. This has to be arson. All four fires happened when no one was home. Statistically this seems impossible. The police and fire marshall seem disinclined to do anything about it. I want to prove someone caused this. I have a suspect. Any ideas about where to start? I have no background in forensics. I've thought about going to local newspaper or asking my own insurance agent for advice. It's pretty creepy.
posted by Xurando to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Well, everything you've cited thus far is purely circumstance. Statistics are more in favor of stochastic happenings than you might think. You're right; it's strange, But if we're going to help you at all you're going to have to give us way more info about this 'suspect' and how you came to think of him/her as such.

Certainly it sounds like insurance fraud or some such thing. But if you want to push the case, you're going to need a fire science expert.
posted by Lutoslawski at 7:25 PM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Here in Southern California, the fire department detectives are pretty sophisticated in their ability to trace fire sources for prosecution. In two cases in the last five years, major fires have been traced to individuals who worked in the fire fighting industry. I was amazed at the detective's ability to trace the path. There were two good articles on their methods, one in the LA Weekly, and one in the Los Angeles Times. If you do a dedicated search on their sites you should get some information. They have also tracked fires to campers, transients, people using power tools, kids playing with matches,etc. has links to the department sites. They may be able to tell you about an expert on the east coast, but SoCal has the arson thing down.
posted by effluvia at 7:30 PM on September 1, 2009

I would call the Vermont State Police Fire Investigation Unit cited in the article and make an appointment with the investigating officer. For all you know there some nut arsonist in the area, unrelated to or unknown by the homeowners, and it's perfectly legitimate to worry about your own property in those circumstances.

If you approach it in this manner, you'll probably get a thoughtful answer from the unit. They could tell you, "we can't prove anything" or "it wasn't arson because...". If you don't get any response at all, contact your county representative or even the governor's office, who would then call DPS and hopefully help get you a response.
posted by txvtchick at 7:45 PM on September 1, 2009

I want to prove someone caused this

I don't know what you mean by prove and this seems to be where things get iffy. If you want to prove this to yourself and your wife well, we can help. If you want to get someone arrested based on the evidence you provide, I suspect you will be frustrated and might even cross some lines.

Start by following the money. Find out how much the houses were insured for, who stood to benefit by burning them down, whether there was a division between the parties that owned the property, used the property, held the insurance policy, and would benefit from new development.
posted by allen.spaulding at 7:48 PM on September 1, 2009

Really, I doubt that you can do this investigation yourself.

How about discusing your suspicions with the insurance company? ( i assume that there is one, or there is little motive for the latest fire.) They have professional investigators and reason to care.
posted by SLC Mom at 7:49 PM on September 1, 2009

I don't think there's going to be much that you can do to prove anything. I guess, if the house is still a pile of burned debris, that you could go in and take samples and send them to a lab for accelerant testing. That's my understanding of how modern arson investigations work. (Well, that and visually inspecting burn patterns, but that's not a skill you just acquire casually, nor something that you can really outsource.)

The whole thing really seems suspicious, particularly because each time the house has burned, the owner has rebuilt bigger and better. That suggests insurance fraud, just on its face. But it doesn't necessarily prove anything. The guy might be really bad about leaving the stove on or have a scented candle and drapery fetish.

That the insurance company hasn't bothered do its own investigation and deny the claim, when it looks as suspicious as you say it does just on first glance, suggests to me that they have decided it's either not arson, or it's at least not possible to demonstrate that it's arson with enough confidence to deny the claim.

I suppose there are some other things you could be on the lookout for: does the owner have stuff stored off-site, in a storage container or something? Did they move things out just prior to the fire, or move things into the new house when it gets rebuilt? Where were their pets, if they have any? (According to one of my relatives who worked in arson investigation once upon a time, one of the signs of a "going out of business fire" was a restaurant that had burned with a suspicious lack of expensive kitchen equipment—i.e. stoves and ovens—in it, or where those items had been recently removed or sold.) Even someone who is committed do pulling off insurance fraud might be loath to burn up family heirlooms, photos, or pets.

Having the house burn to the ground while someone wasn't at home isn't immediately suspicious; most total structural losses do occur as a result of fires that start when someone isn't at home. (Just think about it: most fires get noticed when they're still small if someone is around the house, and they generally get put out before they lead to total loss. But a fire that starts when the family is away can really get cooking before anyone sees smoke and calls the FD; by the time anyone shows up, instead of a minor chimney or electrical fire, you have a fully-involved structure that you can't do anything but contain.)

But I still don't see how you can really prove any of this; you'd just have a pile of anecdotal evidence at the end of it all, and you'd risk angering someone who apparently burns down houses for fun and profit. I'd probably keep my nose well clear, just so that I wouldn't risk coming back to my own house and find it a smoking hole in the ground some day.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:55 PM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

My father owned an apartment building that had a fire, judged accidental by the authorities. I worked to renovate it, spent some time there, talked to people who knew people, looked at the details of the fire pattern. It emerged that it was arson, caused by a jealous wife whose husband hadn't come home yet again.

My father's reaction was, "Good work Sherlock. Now get back to work renovating, and don't do anything that will screw up the insurance settlement."
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:10 PM on September 1, 2009 [5 favorites]

Having a suspect and then looking for evidence that your suspect did it is the wrong way to approach this.
posted by IanMorr at 8:17 PM on September 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The property is cursed by a neighbor who doesn't like what the owners are doing with it.

I agree- all you can do is call the State Fire Marshall (or the equivalent) and report your suspicions, as well as trying to find the insurance company and doing the same.
posted by gjc at 8:27 PM on September 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

The insurance company has the financial motivation (and resources) to investigate. If they started with the same information you have (e.g. aware of all the previous fires) and still haven't come to a different conclusion than the authorities, then it seems unlikely that you'll come up with something on your own. You could double-check that they do have all the information that you have.

Also, you might have the causality backwards regarding nobody being home. Fires that are a total loss are much more likely to happen when nobody's home because if someone's home it can be caught early on (usually even before it becomes a fire).
posted by winston at 8:29 PM on September 1, 2009

Modern arson investigation is a science. You already have a conclusion "This has to be arson." I therefore think that you would have a hard time conducting an impartial, scientific investigation. That being said, winston is right in that the insurance option is your best bet.
posted by nestor_makhno at 8:59 PM on September 1, 2009

The fact that three different owners were involved in the four fires seems to argue against it being insurance fraud by the owners. (One owner whose house burns four times? Sure. Three different owners? Less likely.) Unless the owners were all close friends or something. If it is arson, I'd think it more likely to be either a random arsonist or a disgruntled neighbor than insurance fraud by the owners.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:00 PM on September 1, 2009

it's kinda rubbing me the wrong way that it seems like you're marking the best answer as the one who's jumped to the same conclusion you have. Also, we can't help you prove that it was arson, we can help you prove whether or not it was arson.
posted by Jon_Evil at 9:34 PM on September 1, 2009 [3 favorites]

If the previous fires are common knowledge, you're just going to end up looking like a kook and suspicion is likely to fall on you. All you'll accomplish by making a lot of noise is to give the insurance company pause and possibly make life hell for some poor souls who just lost their home.

My dad was a fireman and was always telling me to be sure to hang up oily rags to dry. These inspectors are pretty smart guys who update their training from time to time.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:48 PM on September 1, 2009

Why is it statistically impossible? Most adults are not at home at least 9 to 10 hours a day, 5 days a week while they're at work, and out running errands, at church, or somewhere else a few hours a day on the weekends.
posted by electroboy at 6:42 AM on September 2, 2009

If you already have a suspect, the first thing I'd worry about is whether my own home could become a target should I begin to press this (and they were, in fact, an arsonist). Be very, very careful whom you speak to about this matter.
posted by dhartung at 7:01 PM on September 2, 2009

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