The news of each fresh fire on Rarotonga is piercing, activating emotions like anger and fear and despair, and raising unanswerable questions: Why would a person intentionally burn down a business or a school? Why hasn’t the perpetrator been caught, arrested, punished? When will the destruction end?
It’s true that authorities have yet to determine whether last week’s fire was an act of arson, but the fact remains that this South Pacific paradise is coping with the devastation of deliberate fire. Like black clouds, these seemingly insoluble questions loom over Rarotonga.
But according to Andy Grzywa, the chief arson investigator at the Los Angeles County Fire Department, there is hope. There are infallible ways to track down perpetrators, and justice is not an unattainable end.
“A spike in arsons involving a smaller community – I’d say the probability of solving the case could be very high, as long as effective techniques are being utilised,” he told me.
“We’ve increased our conviction rate over the years with better education, as have a lot of other jurisdictions, by better understanding and utilising more scientific methodologies and scientific approaches to an investigation.”
Distressed after hearing about the Turoa Bakery fire, I emailed Grzywa’s arson unit, a highly trained and well-resourced branch of the LA County Fire Department, which responds to over 1000 arson attacks in a single year.
Chief Grzywa called me right away to chat about his professional experience, the act of arson, and the general format of a fire investigation.
His first point was that fire does not destroy evidence.
“It’s a common misperception, especially among people that commit criminal actions, that when you commit the act of arson, all the evidence is going to go away, that it will be consumed or burned up,” he told me. “That’s not the case. Arson cases are highly solvable, as long as evidence is preserved. Everything doesn’t always burn away and it isn’t always gone.”
His team conducts systematic scene investigations, working from areas of “least to most damage” to determine how a fire starts, where it starts, and who started it.
Grzywa explained that arson investigations around the world follow a similar format, set by International Association of Arson Investigators standards, to which units in both New Zealand and Australia adhere.
Trends provide important clues, he said.
“I think what needs to be looked at is the trends, the motivation for people to commit arson, from insurance fraud to political indifference and political ideologies,” he said. “There are people who are true pyromaniacs. That is a very rare thing, but it’s a psychological condition.
“They are truly driven by an internal force, basically a desire to light illegal fires. Most people don’t meet the true criteria. Most people are doing it for political reasons, spite, revenge. Some people do it for recognition, vanity If I was in the (Cook Islands) jurisdiction and involved in that investigation I’d be wanting to take a look at what someone’s motivations were. I’d be taking a look at the types of targets – businesses, schools.
“When I got your email, I was sitting there with two of my cohorts and when I read that two schools and a half-dozen businesses had been hit, our thought process was that (the motivation was) political ideals. Maybe it was someone that doesn’t like the way the government in that particular area is doing something. I don’t know, of course, but you have to take a look at that, as far as motivation goes.”
Other patterns can be keys to unlocking the mystery of arson.
“Do these fires occur in a specific area, on a specific day of the week, at a specific time? Some of it can be strictly random, but some can be strictly deliberate.”
Authorities, of course, are ultimately responsible for achieving justice for victims of arson, but chief Grzywa believes community involvement is critical.
Preventive and protective measures like illuminating homes or businesses during the night and removing dry vegetation or large amounts of rubbish near buildings are important, but the public’s top priority should be reporting suspicious behaviour to the police. Indicators of suspicious behaviour include the smell of gasoline on a person’s clothes, intense curiosity about fire, or an unexplained absence during the time of a large-scale fire.
Another thing to keep in mind is that oftentimes, arsonists enjoy standing nearby a deliberate fire to watch it burn, and will generally return to the scene of the crime.
“If it looks suspicious, you need to call local law enforcement,” Grzywa said. “That’s how suspects get put into custody in any crime – someone sees something and says something. We can’t be everywhere, so we rely on the eyes of everyone else On an island of 10,000 people, most people know each other anyway, but I would urge people to get a little closer and take a (closer) look. If you see something, say something.”
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