ATF trains prosecutors on arson clues

An arson demonstration in Alexandria, Va. (NewsChannel 8)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (NewsChannel 8) – Arson investigations can be complicated.

So, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives showed off what arson really looks like. The Alexandria Fire Department helped out with the flames and fire suppression. The main audience was made up of about 40 prosecutors from D.C., Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.

"Typically, [arsons are] done at night and they’re done alone, without witnesses. So, evidence that’s available in most other cases—for instance robbery, things like that—are not available to arson investigators," said Tom Faison, ATF Public Information Officer.

Clues to crimes can be found even in a charred home.

"We see them trying to conceal crimes, whether it’s a homicide, or just a simple theft of a car, they think all the evidence is gone, and there’s still a lot left after that fire," said Adam St. John, Fire Protection Engineer, ATF.

The training session is meant to dispel myths and show prosecutors what goes into arson and what signs to look out for.

"Seeing is believing, right? They want to see these patterns develop first hand and see these fires develop, and you understand that timeline more than anything, too—how quickly they can develop and how dangerous they really are," said St. John.

"It's especially important that prosecutors understand the investigative techniques, know what to look for in their cases and make sure that it’s being presented to them in a way that will hold up in court, " said Kathleen Murphy, chief, Economic Crimes Unit, State's Attorney's Office for Baltimore City.

Detecting arson takes attention to detail and plenty of science.

"The fire patterns—that's the fingerprint of a fire, where those fire patterns develop and ventilation is a huge part of that," said St.John.

ATF members showed how gasoline, an accelerant, took over a small living room quickly. In another room, the hottest part of the fire wasn't where it actually began. Temperatures inside and fire duration also give investigators more details.

Many prosecutors have never been in the hot seat quite like this.

"The power of the fire is inspiring and it's very interesting to see how quickly it moves," said Heather Hovermale, Assistant Commonwealth Attorney, City of Winchester.

It's education that just might make or break a case.