Firebugs 72, Asheville 0

Torched by person or persons unknown, a car burns in front of its West Asheville owner’s home .


Is arson the perfect crime?

In the small hours of Friday, July 24, 1998, an unknown culprit threw a Molotov cocktail-like device through a north-facing window of the Thomas Wolfe House state historic site. The resulting fire extensively damaged the dining room and the bedroom above it.

Public outrage demanded — and got — a prompt investigation of the attack, but as the ashes cooled, so did the pursuit. The house was painstakingly repaired and restored and life went on.

In 2009 a fire determined to have been “deliberately set” destroyed Richmond Hill, the historic residence of ambassador and congressman Richmond Pearson which had a second life as an upscale inn and a third as a conference center. No one was ever arrested in connection with the crime.

In July of 2011 a blaze at Biltmore Medical Center claimed the life of firefighter Jeff Bowen. That fire was also declared to be an arson. That case is also still open.

In 2013 arson destroyed the old Asheville Cotton Mill building.
A few weeks later two arson fires were set in the River Arts District, on property that had recently been purchased by New Belgium Brewing for construction of its East Coast production plant. Those two fires were among four confirmed arsons in a five-day period.

Fast forward: On January 31 of this year, a “suspicious” fire in a local apartment building claimed the life of one woman and left another victim hospitalized.

Also in January, somebody torched local government gadfly Jonathan Wainscott’s car, which was parked in front of his house. Someone — presumably the perp — scratched on the car’s scorched carcass the words “leave her alone”. Wainscott says he doesn’t know who “her” could be; some observers think the message was a misdirection intended to mask a political vendetta.

In all, the number of unsolved arsons in greater Asheville, from the Wolfe House fire to date, has been unofficially but reliably put at 72.

That seems like an awful lot of unsolved crimes, especially with a task force in place. A former Asheville Police Department arson officer agrees, but adds, “It is usually fairly simple to prove a case is an arson, but proving who did it is extremely difficult.”

Upon learning that the city maintains an arson task force, Enquiring Minds reached out to Fire Chief Scott Burdette, asking whether it was still operational. Burdette replied immediately, saying:

“This [a rumor that the task force was inactive] is incorrect. We operate under a task force structure that includes the District Attorney’s Office, State Bureau of Investigation, Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department, City of Asheville Fire Department, City of Asheville Police Department, Buncombe County Fire Chiefs Association and the Buncombe County Fire Marshal’s Office. We have seven certified Fire Investigators  that work for the city of Asheville Fire Department. We staff a minimum of one certified Fire Investigator always on duty. We have one vacant Fire Investigator position currently that is planned to be filled in the next few months”

So there.

The State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) has original jurisdiction in North Carolina arson cases — except, apparently, in situations where a municipality has its own arson investigator(s), which, according to Burdette’s comment above, Asheville does. Thus informed, Enquiring Minds, ever respectful of going through channels, contacted Asheville PIO Dawa Hitch, asking if she could inquire of the the district attorney’s office whether it only receives guilty pleas for arson offenses, or if it actively prosecutes such cases as well.

“I’m not really in a position to answer questions for the DA’s Office,” Ms. Hitch replied. (We knew that.) “I’m the Director of the City’s Communication and Engagement Department.” (We knew that, too, hence the question.) “I’m not sure if the DA has a communication person. [Communications Specialist] Polly [McDaniel] may know… ”

Accordingly, EM put the question to Ms. McDaniel, but has not yet received a reply.

The fact remains that arson is simply a hard charge to bring. The fire itself destroys DNA and collateral evidence. There are almost never witnesses: arson is a crime of stealth, committed usually alone and often under cover of darkness. About the best that prosecutors can hope for, they say, is that a suspect — if a suspect can be found — will confess under a weight of admittedly circumstantial evidence. There are stories of arsonists hanging around or returning to the scene to admire their handiwork, but that doesn’t improve the odds of catching one. (For years rumors have persisted that a serial arsonist, perhaps even a city employee or someone closely connected to one, has been at work in Asheville.)

The surest way to control arson, law enforcement officers say, is prevention — through the use of alarms and fire retardant materials, but mainly by direct surveillance, which is a challenge. “Even if you’ve got a whole plant, say, covered by CCTV, somebody has to be there at the right time looking at it,” one former arson specialist, requesting anonymity, told EM.

“You take the Thomas Wolfe fire,” he said. “That’s a classic. That arson was committed less than a hundred yards from the fire station and the police department. The call came in within five minutes and they [first responders] were there in, like, two minutes. But that was plenty of time for somebody to get away, and all that old wood went up like a matchbox. It’s a wonder they were able to contain it at all.

“People are always talking about the perfect crime in terms of murders and robberies and such,” he added, “But if the perfect crime means breaking the law and never getting caught, surely arson heads the list.”

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