In Tampa, police and fire officials work together to curb arson

Tampa Fire Rescue arson investigators Mike Zurla, front, Frank Rosete, back left, and Ray Alcover sift through debris from a house fire at 2006 N 61st St. in the Six Mile Creek area of Tampa. They  determined the fire started from an electrical malfunction.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Tampa Fire Rescue arson investigators Mike Zurla, front, Frank Rosete, back left, and Ray Alcover sift through debris from a house fire at 2006 N 61st St. in the Six Mile Creek area of Tampa. They determined the fire started from an electrical malfunction.

TAMPA — They knew who set the Cadillac on fire.

The problem was proving it.

A woman called 911 last May to report that her estranged husband had set her car ablaze.

Moments later, fire rescue's arson investigators arrived and sifted through the burnt front seat. Police officers searched the area for the suspect.

Then a police officer, at the scene assisting arson investigators, noticed something in the yard. It was a lighter fluid container, covered in fingerprints. Investigators compared them with the suspect's prints.

It was a match.

The decision to pair up police and fire rescue has led to the clearing of dozens of arson cases in Tampa. It's called the arson task force, a team of Tampa police homicide detectives and Tampa Fire Rescue investigators formed more than two years ago when a string of arsons dotted the V.M. Ybor neighborhood.

In 2011 and again in 2012, the task force's rate of cleared cases was about 40 percent, more than double the national rate. Officials attribute that to the task force.

"Everybody's working together," said Tampa Fire Rescue's arson investigations supervisor Ray Alcover.

• • •

The first fires started in 2009 in the V.M. Ybor neighborhood.

"It was very stressful. We were working all types of hours, all through the night," Alcover said.

The arsons continued into 2010, totaling more than two dozen.

As the neighborhood grew more frustrated, the Tampa mayor at the time, Pam Iorio, issued a blunt apology, writing that the investigations and follow-through "have not been handled with the sense of urgency and coordination that I expected."

She directed the police department to take a bigger role in what had been a fire investigation.

And the idea for a task force was born.

In January 2011, Tampa police's 11 homicide detectives and Tampa Fire Rescue's five arson investigators began working together. They share an office on the eighth floor of Tampa Police Department's headquarters on Franklin Street.

Since it launched, the task force has investigated more than 400 fires, about 37 percent of which were reported arsons, records show.

Arson investigators and detectives share resources to solve cases at a faster pace. Fire investigators have access to Tampa police forensics specialists and information databases. Patrol officers communicate frequently with fire investigators at scenes.

"Now there's more of a seamless flow of crime scene technicians, patrol," said homicide Sgt. Bill Todd. "It's not so much as you're over here and we don't always get to see each other."

Task force members also receive additional training, Todd said. Detectives take fire training courses. Arson investigators are sworn police officers.

"We try to cross train and give everybody the full benefit of those experiences, and it works well," said Todd.

It is unclear how many other agencies statewide have created similar task forces. But locally, other agencies appear to practice similar plans.

In Pinellas County, St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue has seven arson investigators, one of which is also a detective with the police department.

Hillsborough County Fire Rescue cleared nearly 11 percent of its arson cases last year. To increase the number of cleared cases, the agency plans to add more investigators to its arson unit and hopes to work closer with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, a setup similar to what Tampa agencies created.

"It's fantastic," Alcover said. "And the stats prove it."

• • •

Arsons are difficult crimes to solve. Most are committed at night, leaving few witnesses behind. Evidence is usually damaged or destroyed in the flames.

"They are very challenging," Todd said, adding that sometimes, "we know who did it, but being able to prove that beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt is quite a hurdle."

In the case of the burning Cadillac, the fingerprints led police to Thaddeus Gallon, who eventually confessed. He was convicted of arson and sentenced to 30 years in prison in December.

So far in 2013, the task force has investigated eight arson cases. It has made one arrest.

• • •

Before a fire is considered arson, investigators must determine what caused it. They consider a list of possible causes: Lightning? Weather? Electrical?

"As you go eliminating everything," Alcover said, "you come to the conclusion where it can't be anything else but human intervention."

On Jan. 29 before sunrise, Alcover and several other investigators were at a fire at 2006 N 61st St. Flames had ripped through the roof of a house that was divided into segments and rented out by the owner.

He searched outside for any evidence. At the left of the house, Alcover saw the origin of the blaze: the gaping hole where firefighters had attacked the flames.

Alcover pointed his flashlight into the darkness and caught glimpses of the wreckage. The blackened roof drooped inward. A wall was missing, exposing a room with nothing in it but the charred springs of a mattress.

Investigators reconstructed the room. They shoveled debris off the floor and placed the mattress back in place. They asked the homeowner where an A/C unit, toppled on the ground, used to belong on the missing wall. They discovered an orange cord.

The cause of the fire: an electrical malfunction.

Laura C. Morel can be reached at lmorel@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386.

In Tampa, police and fire officials work together to curb arson 02/10/13 [Last modified: Sunday, February 10, 2013 9:15pm]

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