Arson Investigation

Kevin Newland, Special Agent with the Virginia State Police, admits arson is one tough case to crack.

"We have to get in and get dirty, dig around and put things back together like a puzzle so we can determine where the fire started," Newland says.

He is describing a typical day for an arson specialist. It's not an easy job.

"Arson is one of the hardest crimes to solve," he says.

Evidence is often destroyed by fire or the water used to extinguish the fire. But despite winter weather conditions, investigators say they can still find evidence to prove an arson case.

"There are certain factors and steps we go through to determine if it was an accidental fire or was it a set fire," Newland says.

He is using these secret techniques to crack the serial arson case in Luray. The latest fire happened at the corner of East Main Street and Wilson Street early Saturday. The blaze fits the pattern of nine other suspicious downtown fires in the past two months.

"Different firesetters have distinct patterns that they follow and that helps you link things together," Newland says.

Most of the Luray fires started on weekends, late at night or in the early morning. But there are still no suspects.

Dan Seal, Luray Fire Chief, says, "It could be your next door neighbor. We don't know."

Seal says he knows this case might go on for a while. Of the thirty or so cases Newland has investigated in the past three years, he says not one has led to a conviction.

"It's very frustrating. But you do all you can do. You put 100 percent into every investigation and you hope the lead breaks so you can make an arrest," he says.

Newland admits juvenile fire setters are a problem. Studies show more than half of all arsonists are eighteen or younger.

Contact your local police if you have any information in this case. There is an award for up to $5,000.

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Arson Facts

  • Arson is the second leading cause of death by fire in the United States, exceeded only by losses due to smoking.

  • Arson is the leading cause of property damage due to fires.

  • One of every four fires that occur in the U.S. each year, about a half million, are arson.

  • Each year, more than 90 percent of all civilian deaths in incendiary and suspicious structure fires occur in residential properties.

  • Direct property damage from arson totals more than $3 billion in a typical year. One out of every four dollars lost to fire is the result of arson.

  • Only 16 percent of arson offenses lead to arrest, and only 2 percent of those arrested are convicted.

  • Preliminary results of a new study by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) suggest that between one-fifth to one-fourth of reported arson cases in major American cities are drug-related.

  • Arson is the leading cause of fire in houses of worship, accounting for 25 percent of church and related property fires.

  • 53 percent of all arsons are set by youths under age 18.

Source: www.usfa.fema.gov contributed to this report


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