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Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Black Forest Wildfire: An Arson-Murder Case

     A wildfire is generally defined as an uncontrolled fire in an area of combustable vegetation that occurs in the countryside or a wilderness area. Fires of this nature can be brush fires or forest fires. Wildfires are caused naturally by lightening strikes and accidentally by careless campers. Occasionally controlled fires set by government fire officials to reduce highly combustable underbrush grow out of control and burn down the entire forest. Wildfires are also caused by arsonists whose motives are usually pathological.

     At two in the afternoon of Tuesday, June 11, 2013, a fire that started in the Black Forest north of Colorado Springs, Colorado, quickly raged out of control. When finally contained and extinguished on Thursday, June 20, the blaze had killed two people, destroyed 509 homes, and blackened 22 square miles of land. The Black Forest disaster is the most destructive wildfire in the history of the state.

     Fire investigation specialists with the ATF, the U. S. Forestry Service, and the El Paso County Sheriff's Office have ruled out nature and accident as the cause of the Black Forest Wildfire. That leaves arson, and because the blaze killed two people, the case is being handled, under the felony-murder doctrine, as an arson-murder investigation.

     At the suspected area of the wildfire's origin, investigators were seen crawling on their hands and knees in search of physical clues pertaining to the method of ignition, and the identity of the fire setter.

     In terms of establishing the cause of a fire--locating its point of origin or origins--the debris analysis of a structural fire generally provides a more complete and clearer picture of the fire's cause. Signs of an incendiary structural fire might include heavy burning and intense heat at a spot without an ignition source, multiple points of origin, and traces of an accelerant such as gasoline. These arson indicators usually don't exist at the scene of an intentionally set wildfire.

     Because wildfires begin in remote areas, there are usually no eyewitnesses to the event. In home and business arson cases, investigative leads include the standard motives of insurance fraud and the elimination of a business competitor. In fatal fires, all of the motives that go with criminal homicide are available to the investigator. These leads and pool of usual suspects are rarely available in wildfire arson cases.

     If the Black Forest arsonist is identified, it will probably be because he couldn't keep his mouth shut. Someone--a former girlfriend, an ex-wife, a cellmate, or a drinking buddy--will have to come forward with incriminating evidence. Once that occurs, there is always a good chance of a confession based upon a plea arrangement.

     

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