January crime map: Investigators solve fires with small details

tstevens@ledger-enquirer.comFebruary 18, 2014 

Pinned to Fire Investigator Danny Irions cubicle is a simple, black-and-white photo of a taxi cab. Its spread-eagle doors steal the eye away from the unassuming, sealed trunk.

It’s that small detail — easily overlooked — that makes the photo the most important reminder in Irions career.

In 2008, Irions responded to the scene of an apparent armed robbery on Meloy Drive. A car seat had been set ablaze during the robbery, and it was Irions’ job to document evidence that could be used to clear the case.

He thought the closed trunk odd, but when police told Irions investigators had already left the scene, he assumed the trunk had been checked.

“It wasn’t an intentional oversight,” Irions said. “I was told that task had already been done.”

It wasn’t long before Irions received a frantic call from his supervisor. When a wrecker hired by the cab company towed the vehicle back to Phenix City, the trunk was opened. Inside — Vincent Flores’ body.

Fred E. Bickler, 29, and Carrie A. Lemke, 30, were later accused of stabbing the cab driver in the neck before stuffing him in the trunk and setting the vehicle on fire. He was likely still alive when the vehicle was set ablaze. A later autopsy determined he died from a combination of smoke inhalation and stab wounds.

It was a pivotal case in Irions' development as a fire investigator, a career which often hinges on keen observation and the uncovering of small scraps.

“Everyday, I look at that photo, and I remember,” Irions said. “You have to check everywhere for evidence. Everywhere.”

Making a Fire Investigator is a years-long process, requiring constant training and endless determination. Some investigators, if given the choice, would choose homicides over a case where the evidence has been reduced to ashes, Columbus Fire Marshall Ricky Shores said.

"I think it would be difficult to argue that there are many investigations that are more difficult than fire investigations," Shores said. "They have to understand that a lot of the material they used to prove the case is burned up before they can even determine a crime has been committed. That’s not the case in other law enforcement investigations."

The career path starts with at least three years of fire experience, during which the prospective investigator learns how fire moves. From there, a firefighter can apply for the program. If the Fire Department finds them in good standing, then the firefighter have a chance to go through a grueling two-week course called "Fire Investigator 1." If the candidate passes that and meets additional experience requirements, then that person might become eligible to take "Fire Investigator 2."

It takes candidates at least two years to meet state requirement, and even if all requirements are met there are no guarantees that applicants will be granted the fire investigator title, which is presently held by only three members of the Fire Department. Those three make up their own department — the Fire Prevention Division.

"They are very difficult employees to create, and I say create because you have to make them," Shores said.

Irions started his career as an emergency medical technician in 1993. He became a firefighter in addition to a paramedic in 2001 after the Fire Department merged with Emergency Medical Services. In 2004, his love of puzzles and independent work moved him to apply for a fire investigations position.

"We call ourselves fire investigators because we go out to a scene not knowing if it's an arson, or an incendiary fire," Irions said. "We don't begin investigating it as an arson until we've determined criminal intent."

Sometimes that criminal intent is easier to determine, like in the recent Mason Street arson, in which 26-year-old Eric Lamar Person is accused of setting fire to a home while at least nine of the 11 residents were inside. Firefighters rescued a 6-year-old girl who was hiding under some covers in a bedroom that night, according to reports.

In that case, witnesses were able to link Person to the scene. But such a scenario is notoriously rare for the crime. The Federal Emergency Management Agency states that arsons account for more than 25 percent of fires, but has a conviction rate of less than two percent.

"Arson is not like your typical murder or burglary or homicide," Irions said. "By the time we get there, at least fifteen people have been through the fire scene. It's been doused with water. Everything's been touched. The smoke's affected it, the heat and the fire itself has chemically altered and changed it."

To make it, investigators learn to lean on small details — half burnt serial numbers of potentially shoddy products and paper trails left by opportunistic fire starters looking for an insurance payout, for example.

It's work that sometimes requires years of digging before a case can be closed. But for Irions, the thrill of solving a puzzle and the knowledge that knowing that he may have helped someone recover from a devastating fire is enough.

Ultimately, it's important to keep in mind that fire investigations are just one part of a team effort.

"I try to look at things in a way like I did when I was on the ambulance," Irions said. "Just knowing that I'm there and was able to provide a little bit and do my part for the team that did respond helps. This is not a single person effort. We're a team."

Monthly Crime Map

For newcomers to the map, a note: it isn't meant to be comprehensive. Columbus law enforcement sometimes make hundreds of arrests in a week, most mundane and some with little information useful to the public.

Instead of mapping each individual report, we've highlighted the crimes we've written about throughout the week. We've also made an effort to mark areas that have seen multiple burglaries or property crimes during the week.

Icons represent the types of crimes committed. Here's the breakdown:

• Tombstone: Murders or high-profile deaths

• Boxing gloves: Unarmed assaults

• Gun: Armed assaults

• Money bag: Robberies, burglaries and property crimes

• Pill: Drug-related offenses

• Flames: Arson and fires

• Don't touch sign: Sexual crimes, stalking, indecent exposure

• Car: Car thefts, entering autos and other car related crimes.

• Shopping cart: shoplifting

Because some incidences happened at the same or almost the same location, users may have to zoom in close to see every entry.

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