Evidence in the Ashes

What is the daily life like for arson investigators?
How is evidence collected?
We shadow the lead arson investigators in Fresno.

By KEN MALLOY | February 3, 2017

Authorities arrested an arson suspect tied to the devastating blaze at Livingstone’s Restaurant & Pub in the Tower District on Jan. 19. In another high profile 2015 case, a woman was convicted of setting the fire that severely injured Fresno Fire Capt. Pete Dern.

So how does the Fresno Fire Department solve arson cases?

A handful of investigators – and a trusty K-9 named “Tessa” – handle about 500 cases a year. Their staff is small, but their conviction rate is high.

They’re part cop – part investigator – and part firefighter.

Eyewitness News takes you behind the scenes on how they handle everything from ignition to conviction as they search for “evidence in the ashes.”

 

 

Eyewitness News’ Ken Malloy will delve into the Livingstone’s arson fire, but first, here’s a little more on the 2015 arson case in Fresno that made national headlines.

 

History of the Pete Dern case


The 2015 arson fire which resulted in Dern falling into the inferno made national headlines, and the video went viral. He survived with massive burns.

The call came in about a board-and-care facility that was on fire on March 29, 2015, and Dern and his crew responded to the house on east Cortland Avenue near Blackstone and Shields avenues.

Dramatic video captured the moment when Dern fell through a weak spot in the roof which landed him in the burning garage.

One witness at the scene continuously screamed in horror as firefighters frantically took their axes to the garage door in an attempt to save their captain as he was being burned by the flames inside.

Dern – a 25-year veteran – was eventually rescued after three agonizing minutes at the mercy of the fire.

He was burnt from head to toe, a witness told Eyewitness News shortly after Dern was rescued.

Dern suffered burns to more than 80 percent of his body with 3rd degree burns to 40 percent. His hands, face, back and legs were all injured.

“This is a significant, emotional impact to our members. We’re a part of the incident; we’re a part of the rescue; we’re a part of this firefighter’s personal life,” Fresno Fire Battalion Chief Todd Tuggle said at the scene that day.

Firefighters from all over rallied in support of Dern.

“We are family – brothers and sisters – and as you can see here we rally around each other and are very supportive,” Fresno Fire Chief Kerri Donis said after the accident.

The extent of Dern’s injuries may have been less severe if he’d been wearing additional protective gear, according to a nearly 300-page report which reviewed the incident that came out 10 months later.

“It was noted that the protective gloves and hood did not appear to have been worn at the time of the incident,” the report said.

"We are family – brothers and sisters"

Donis said she asked for the review “with the intent and the goal of never letting this happen again in this department, but quite frankly the fire service.” The report was commissioned with the help several other fire-fighting agencies including CalFire, the Los Angeles Fire Department, the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire Department and others.

The report told Fresno Fire to be more cautious about going onto roofs to ventilate fires.

“Fresno Fire Department members routinely ventilate over garages without proper risk analysis to the benefits of the actions taken or the type of construction,” the report said.

Dern slowly recovered from his massive injuries. He endured more than 20 surgeries and more than five months in the burn unit.

Pete Dern at a press conference at CRMC

"My very first step – I didn't think I was ever gonna walk again. It hurt, but they encouraged me to keep going. Now I'm walking great and I'll be running in a few months I hope," Dern said the day her was released from Community Regional Medical Center in downtown Fresno.

He said he had been feeling good – extremely happy and grateful to go home to his wife and daughter. It's a moment Chief Donis had also been looking forward to since that infamous day on March 29.

"You gave my wife back her husband, my daughter back her dad, my mom back her son and my sisters back their brother"

"It brings you to tears, I remember being here on the 29th worried that we were gonna have a line-of-duty, death and with that man's true grit, he pushed himself every day to get out here, and he's just amazing," Donis said relieved that Dern was finally going home.

On the one-year anniversary of the fire, Dern’s wife Kelly took to a podium to praise the five firefighters who helped save Pete’s life. She read a message from her husband to thank them.

"You gave my wife back her husband, my daughter back her dad, my mom back her son and my sisters back their brother," Kelly Dern read, fighting back her own emotions. "You have given me the opportunity to ... share some laughs with friends and be here with my family. Thank you."

Julia Harper was arrested on April 22, 2015

Julia Harper was arrested a little more than a month after the fire – April 22, 2015.

And finally – according to a statement released by the Fresno County District Attorney's Office on April 6, 2016, Harper entered a plea to arson of an inhabited structure, and she admitted the allegation that Dern suffered great bodily injury as a result of the fire.

She was convicted of starting the blaze, and she’s now in state prison serving a nine-year sentence.

So how do arson investigators prove arson? And how do they get a conviction?

A more recent high – profile arson case involved Livingstone’s – a beloved Tower District destination since the 1980s.
 

History of the Livingstone’s case


Back on Dec. 20, 2016, the inside of Livingstone’s – which is located on east Fern Avenue, near Olive and Maroa avenues – was torched. The fire caused an estimated $500,000 in damage.

The business was a well-known bar and restaurant, and some even went as far as to say that it was like an extended part of their family.

The owners were so distraught that they did not want to speak on camera to Eyewitness News, but the community rallied around the employees who were left without jobs just days before Christmas.

More than 30 people were left in the lurch as year’s end approached.

"This is surreal. I still wake up every morning thinking I need to go to work."

“It's a wide range of people who have a love for this place – especially since it has been around for so long – and especially with the bartenders and the folks who work here. They are so personable that you know their lives – you know when they have had babies, and you know that part of them," said Tony Saragosa, a frequent patron of Livingstone’s.

It wasn’t until Jan. 3, 2017 that Eyewitness News broke the story that investigators determined someone had intentionally set the building on fire.

“We have been able to conclusively identify it as a willfully, maliciously caused – criminally caused fire – in other words arson,” Fresno Deputy Fire Marshal Don Macalpine exclusively told Eyewitness News.

Macalpine said finding the cause of the fire wasn’t just business as usual.

“We have taken this particular incident rather personal,” he said. “It is somewhat of a small family culture there, and we want to help them however we can.”

Needless to say, employees of Livingstone’s also took the lost of the business – and their jobs – personally.

“On the day that it happened, there were customers I saw on the news that were out here collecting money for us," said bartender Kortney Seiler – who was fighting back tears. She was shocked to hear it was arson. "It's surreal – it really is – this is surreal. I still wake up every morning thinking I need to go to work.”

Seiler said that 95 percent of the employees were the primary source of income for their families. Community members came together to raise money for the employees – and even setup a GoFundMe page which raised more than $11,000.

On Jan 19, just one day shy of the one-month anniversary of the fire, fire officials announced that they had made an arrest in the case.

Macalpine said that Justin Joseph Silva illegally gained access to Livingstone’s and started the fire.

“We have established – I believe – a very significant and incriminating motive,” Macalpine said.

Livingstone's patio after the blaze

Livingstone’s employees and customers who were angry about the incident were relieved about an arrest being made.

“I think this was a malicious crime acted out by somebody who wanted to harm people – who wanted to harm somebody. I don't know that Livingstone’s has enemies that way,” said Joey Fernandez, a friend of the restaurant's owners. "I hope that justice is served. We want to ensure that this person stays locked up, I want the community to know … Tower District stands by their businesses.”
 

But after a fire like the one at Livingstone’s is put out, that's when investigators roll in to look for evidence. They’re the last ones in and the last ones out.

“Most of what I do is criminal … fire investigation is really a science,” Fire Investigator Joseph Coppo said.

A warrant was put out for Silva’s arrest after he failed to show up in Fresno County court on Feb. 2. It turned out he was busy.

He’d actually been arrested on Jan. 30 near Lemoore after the Kings County Sheriff’s Office said he attacked an elderly woman, dragged her into her home, robbed her, and damaged her phone so she couldn’t dial 911.

He was booked into Kings County Jail, but not before telling the arresting deputy that he was “going to trial in Fresno for being accused of setting fires.”

Silva is being held in Kings County on a slew of charges which include robbery, assault, kidnapping and others.

Eyewitness News followed Coppo and gained unprecedented access as he revisited the charred remains of the Livingstone’s blaze.

The building is dark, damp and reeks of smoke. So where do you start in a mess like this?

Examining the remains at Livingstone's

“I would process it, and I would take it off layer by layer,” Coppo said.

His first step is the process of elimination. He starts where the fire wasn’t and works backward.

“I can look at this and rule this out,” Coppo said.

To the average person – it’s just a soggy, smokey pile of junk.

"You do have that detective in you, but I’m still a firefighter at heart"

“We could look for something as small as a match in this rubble,” he said. “We’re going to try and find an incendiary device in there.”

To investigators, the junk is evidence.

“You do have that detective in you, but I’m still a firefighter at heart,” Coppo said. Investigators notice the little things.

“This is charring, and then there’s the depth of char,” Coppo explained going through the scene.

It’s a puzzle that’s waiting to be reconstructed.

“I have a door; I have a fan; I have glass; I have a table, and I can start building that scene back together,” Coppo said.

He’ll slowly start to narrow his focus He’s looking for subtle things.

Reviewing the scene at Livingstone's

“How intense the heat was – the depth of the char, and the side that it’s on – the direction the fire came from,” Coppo explained as investigatory tools. “So we know we had more heat – more direct impingement – as opposed to down here.”

And at a certain point, he said the fire starts to talk to him.

“[The fire] wants to tell you its story,” Coppo said. “There’s a nice little ‘V’ that will show up exactly where the heat source was from. It will give you that pattern; it almost wants to show you.”

Then – in comes Tessa, and she hunts for evidence in the ashes.

“Where is it? Show me girl. Good girl,” Coppo told Tessa.

Tessa is a two-year veteran with Fresno Fire Investigative Unit. Her handler is Fire Investigator Lee Wilding.

“I’m her sidekick, actually,” Wilding joked.

Tessa, two-year veteran with the Fresno Fire Investigation Unit

Tessa is an expert at detecting flammable residue. It doesn’t matter if it’s kerosine, gasoline or lighter fluid – she’ll find it.

“I’ll put it in one of those canisters, mark it and send it to the [Department of Justice] to have it tested.

Wilding demonstrated Tessa’s keen sense of smell. With Tessa out of the room, he dropped one tiny drop of gasoline on the already cleared crime scene inside Livingstone’s.

“Ready to go to work, Tessa?” Wilding asked the dog after he brought her back in. “Alright, let’s go seek.”

You’ll see Tessa’s tail wag. Why? Because this is fun for her; it’s a game.

Remarkably, within seconds she discovered that one tiny drop of gasoline. She’s way better than a hydrocarbon detector that’s used for the same purpose.

“The K-9 is more reliable … show me – good girl,” Wilding said as Tessa found the part he’d marked with gasoline.

Tessa nods her head emphatically and rapidly as if to point to the source of ignitable fluid.

“Good girl,” Wilding told Tessa as he gave her a treat for a job well done.

This was only a drill, but normally investigators would collage the evidence Tessa found in the ashes.

"She helps us identify evidence that we can use to prosecute people," Wilding said. Prosecutions are sometimes simplified because some physical evidence is hard to explain away in a courtroom. Wilding said it’s pretty damning evidence when you find gasoline in someone’s living room.

Just the same, convicting a suspected arsonist takes time.

Deputy Fire Marshal Macalpine said: “It requires discipline – diligence – patience.”

Macalpine has investigated almost 7,000 fires.

“Every fire is investigated,” Macalpine said.

 

"The fire wants to tell you its story"

Scene of a house fire on West Bluff Avenue, December 20, 2016

He said fires are either accidental, natural or criminal – and if it’s the latter – his team handles the case.

“If it’s criminal, all of our staff are full peace officers – we handle it from ignition to conviction,” Macalpine said.

Macalpine said nationwide, clearance rates for arson cases are low – only about 3 to 4 percent. But Fresno’s rates are more like 30 to 40 percent – which is very high on the national standard.

In the criminal justice system, clearance rates are calculated by dividing the number of crimes that are "cleared" (someone is charged) by the total number of crimes that occurred.

Investigators hope to soon add the Livingstone’s fire to their success rate with the recent announcement that 33-year-old Justin Silva was arrested on suspicion of burglary and arson.

“[Silva] was taken into custody without incident,” Macalpine said.

Charred Livingstone's sign

In the Livingstone’s fire, investigators used everything from nearby surveillance video to witness testimony – and even physical evidence from Tessa to make an arrest.

And as a K-9, Tessa’s task is narrow – specific.

“She’s pointing to where it is – that’s her job. That’s exactly what she’s doing,” Wilding said.

But the job of seven fire investigators is more diverse – they wear a lot of different hats.

“Do you feel more like a firefighter or more like a cop?” Eyewitness News’ Ken Malloy asked Coppo.

“I’m a firefighter at heart – I truly am,” Coppo said.

A firefighter who listens to stories left behind by a fire.

 

2015 Estimated Value of Damage From Arson in Fresno

Fresno Police Department December/Annual Report

$

38400

Estimated value of damage for Single Occupancy Residential property arson cases in Fresno for 2015

$

270,000

Estimated value of damage for Other Commercial property arson cases in Fresno for 2015

$

15500

Estimated value of damage for Motor Vehicle property arson cases in Fresno for 2015

2006-2015 Arson Cases in Fresno, CA

2015 Fresno Police Department Annual Report

Timeline

Lead investigator determines the Livingstone's fire is arson

  • Overnight fire at Livingstone's

     

    Roughly around 5:15am, a fire burned through Livingstone's Restaurant & Pub causing an estimated $400,000 in damages


  • Community rallies

     

    Hours later, donations were being accepted via their GoFundMe Page and a tip jar outside Livingstone's

  • time>

    Livingstone's Fire Ruled Arson

     

    Lead investigator determines the Livingstone's fire is arson



  • Charges

     

    An arrest was made in the arson investigation of Livingstone's. Justin Joseph Silva was charged for arson and burglary according to DA records.



  • Arrest Made

     

    An arrest was made after Joseph Silva is accused of attacking and robbing an elderly woman. He is currently being held in Kings County Jail on charges of robbery, assault, kidnapping, and others.



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