Arson often overlooked by America’s fire investigatorsNovember 27, 2013
By THOMAS HARGROVE
MUNCIE, Ind.— If anyone had noticed, Kenneth Allen was the unluckiest man in town.
The outgoing, likable UPS deliveryman had two fires in his home, another blaze that destroyed his backyard garage and two vehicles fires in front of his house — five fires over an eight-year period that racked up $173,896 in insurance claims.
But nobody noticed the unusual pattern until one of Allen’s friends walked into the local Nationwide Insurance office to pick up a $1,500 check after his own house burned down.
“He’d been in the office frequently and had always been super friendly and flirtatious. He even asked me out once. But this time he wouldn’t look me in the eye,” said the Nationwide agent, who asked not to be identified because she has relocated to a new state over fears for her safety as a result of the case.
“That’s when I became 100 percent sure that something was going on.”
More than three years later, that something turned out to be America’s largest known arson conspiracy.
The ensuing investigation netted the arrest and conviction of 46 men and women in federal and state courts for at least 73 home and vehicle fires that were deliberately set in the Indiana cities of Indianapolis, Anderson, Noblesville and Muncie.
Among those convicted was Kenneth Allen and his sister Vanessa, who was sentenced to 10 years for her role in setting 39 fires. The conspirators collected about $3.8 million in insurance payouts for intentionally set fires committed over a 14-year span from 1992 through the end of 2006.
The conspiracy sent a shiver through the nation’s fire community.
“Not one of these fires was called ”˜intentionally set’ by a fire investigator. Not one. They were all identified as accidental or electrical fires,” said former Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent Michael Vergon, who led the investigation.
Arson is frequently missed by local fire investigators, a Scripps News investigation has found. Scripps obtained records of 1 million building fires reported to the U.S. Fire Administration from 2006 through 2011 and found clear indications that tens of thousands of arsons may be missed each year.
”¢ 54,860 fires at ”˜unlucky’ buildings that, like Allen’s home, experienced multiple fires but none of which were reported as arson.
”¢ 42,434 fires at buildings that experienced foreclosure, according to the national mortgage monitoring firm RealtyTrac.
”¢ 3,561 fires that had multiple points of ignition, suggesting someone set several fires at once.
”¢ 77,596 fires in unoccupied or vacant buildings.
“This is sad. Somebody wasn’t doing their job. All of those should have been red flags indicating that someone should have gone in and investigated them further,” said David G. Stayer, a certified fire investigator for Rehmann Corporate Investigative Services in Troy, Mich. Stayer also has worked as an arson investigator for 14 years for the Michigan State Police.
“Every fire should be investigated. But it comes down to money and manpower,” Stayer said. “We don’t have the money to put enough trained people out to investigate our fires.”
Serial arsonist Kenneth Allen agreed to be interviewed for the first time for this story after serving more than four years in federal prison. He’s struggling to make a new life while remaining in the town where he says he personally set 14 fires, although police believe it was closer to 20.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think: ”˜Man, I was a monster.’ I’m just thankful no one was hurt,” Allen said.
“It is still happening,” he said of arson. “Let’s be honest. It is still happening.”
Fire experts warn that half of the nation’s acts of arson are routinely missed because fire departments lack sufficiently trained investigators to determine the origin and cause of most of the 370,000 home structure fires each year.
In all, the Scripps investigation found there were at least 163,879 suspicious fires over the six-year period studied, more than twice the number of fires officially reported as arson to the U.S. Fire Administration. These fires caused at least 788 deaths — including 12 firefighter deaths — and 13,009 injuries. Loss to property and contents totaled at least $5.8 billion, although many fire departments decline to report dollar-loss information.
The Muncie Fire Department has one of the nation’s worst records, both in detecting arson and reporting it to federal authorities, according to the Scripps analysis. Of 120 suspicious fires, only 5 were reported to U.S. Fire Administration as intentional fires.
“There was never an investigation,” Allen said of the fires he set. “Muncie got into the habit of ruling the same night of the fire. Then they wouldn’t come back the next day. You’d know right away” that his arsons weren’t discovered, he said.
Muncie today has only one fire investigator, Robert M. Mead, who said his department was shocked by the size of the Allen arson conspiracy.
“I don’t know that we, as a group, have a grasp of the magnitude of it,” said Mead, who estimates no more than 5 percent of the building fires in Muncie are deliberately set.
“There has been a drastic reduction in incendiary fires. I just don’t see a lot of them these days,” Mead said.
Ed Nordskog, a veteran arson investigator for Los Angeles County, believes that fire departments are failing to detect at least half of all arsons in the United States because of a shortage of trained investigators.
“The majority of fire agencies do not investigate probably half of their arsons. They don’t even go to the scene,” Nordskog said.
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