In Depth: Arson insiders

July 05, 2017 06:46 PM

When you hear about the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, you probably think guns. However, there are highly specialized federal agents here in our area who are experts in fires.

Suspicious fires can do a lot of damage, they can be deadly, and they're also complicated and difficult.

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The Schenectady Arson Task Force has an astonishing 100-percent conviction rate.

In 2015, a restaurant on State Street was the scene of a fire. The owner at the time poured fuel on the steps and set it on fire to collect insurance.  Someone was still home and trapped by the growing flames and smoke.

"The tenant that lived above it was home at the time in the morning, and where the fire was actually set in the building was right below the staircase, which was the tenant's only way of getting out of the building at the time," noted Michael DeMatteo, who prosecuted that case.

Firefighters rescued the tenant. Building owner Zabeeda Permaul is now serving a sentence of 25 years to life in prison.

In fire investigations, it can be a long road from crime to conviction.

The Schenectady Arson Task Force includes ATF Special Agent Mark Meeks, a certified fire investigator and also a National Response Team member.

With the ATF involved, a key resource is their fire research lab in Maryland.

"It's a state-of-the-art facility like no other place in the country. It's like no other place in the world, really.  They have the ability to construct a three-story building inside this facility and burn it down," said Brian Mein, an ATF resident agent in charge.

It's where they do all kinds of specific testing for different scenarios.

"How long does it take for a smoke detector to go off? How does a fire move through a building," explained Meeks.

Sometimes, it also tells investigators who's lying about what happened.

"So if somebody says, 'Yeah, I walked into a burning room,' and that person doesn't have any sort of injuries or soot or any burns on them, you know they're probably not being completely honest with you because the science doesn't jive with their story," pointed out Meeks.

The Schenectady Arson Task Force is also investigating the Hulett Street fire in 2013 that killed three children and their father. Severely burned little Sa'fyre Terry was the only survivor. That case is still open. So far, two people have been convicted of perjury and two more admitted to lying about the fire.

The task force came in on the Jay Street fire that killed four people in 2015. The fire was ruled an accident, but resulted in two people-- a city code enforcement officer and the property manager-- facing criminal charges.

Another ATF resource is the NRT truck. Special Agent Meeks gave NewsChannel 13 a look. Finding fire origin and cause often involves painstaking work.

The truck that was used by the team after the fatal fire on Jay Street also went to Boston after the tragic marathon bombings.

"It's a long, hard investigation. A lot of times, it's tedious investigation work, circumstantial evidence. You build a case with circumstantial evidence to make an arrest.  A lot of times, an arson, there's no eyewitness," explained Schenectady Police Detective Matthew Kiser.

"Once you know what you're looking for and you become good at it, which we have based on time experience and a lot of smart people working together, you get used to it after a while and you start knowing what to look for and how to run the investigation," noted Schenectady Fire Captain Douglas Faulisi.

The task force is made up of ATF, fire, police, and a dedicated arson prosecutor.  It includes firefighters cross-trained as district attorney investigators who take the case from the crime to the courtroom. 

"Having a couple of fire investigators intensely interested in that issue, and working full-time on those cases to help the police investigators is, I think, the essential key to success," asserted Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney.

Carney says their solve rate is 78 percent, when the national average is much lower, in the 20s. All of the people they've brought to court have been convicted.

Arsons are difficult. A lot of evidence burns up, but not all of it does. From the ashes, science speaks for the victims.


Kumi Tucker

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