Jim Kouri
ATF joins Palin's church arson investigation
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By Jim Kouri
December 16, 2008

Acting Special Agent in Charge Douglas R. Dawson, Seattle Field Division, of the Bureau of

Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) today announced that agents from the Anchorage Field Office joined the Wasilla Bible Church arson investigation.

On Dec. 13, 2008, the Central Mat-Su Fire Department and the Alaska State Fire Marshal's Office contacted ATF Anchorage Field Office and requested assistance in investigating the fire that occurred on Dec. 12.

The on-site investigation revealed an ignitable accelerant that had been poured on and around the exterior of the church in multiple locations, to include the entrances and exits. Evidence recovered from the fire scene was collected and retained by members of the Alaska State Crime Laboratory. The initial damage to the structure is estimated at about $500,000. No injuries have been reported.

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has been known to attend this church in the past. Governor Palin and her family attended the church the Sunday before her selection as the Republican Vice-Presidential Candidate.

"ATF will continue to work diligently alongside our local partners and will make every effort to find the person or persons responsible for this fire," said Dawson. "Most importantly, there were no injuries or deaths related to this incident."

This is an ongoing, joint investigation with the Central Mat-Su Fire Department, the Anchorage Fire Department, the Wasilla Police Department and the State Fire Marshal's Office.

Historically, arson investigators have relied on a variety of indicators to determine how and where a fire started. The physical evidence that "defined" an arson was accepted as "fact" and used in court to support an incendiary cause for a fire.

However, successful defense challenges to many of these indicators has required further scientific validation. ATF's Certified Fire Investigator (CFI) Program has taken fire investigation and analysis beyond a discipline based on experience and has applied scientific and engineering technology.

Today, there are 56 ATF special agents trained as CFIs stationed throughout the United States, and 29 special agents are in the initial stages of training. These agents are the only investigators trained by a Federal law enforcement agency to qualify as expert witnesses in fire cause determinations.

This cadre of origin-and-cause specialists has recently been introduced to the intricacies of computer fire modeling. Through computer software programs, these agents can utilize mathematical equations that describe the chemical and physical behavior of fire. When used properly, these computer programs can simulate a characterized fire, calculating such things as volumetric smoke flow and room temperature as a function of time, the peak heat release rate (or "Q dot," which has come to symbolize the CFI program), and the point at which a transition to flashover will occur.

Although a relatively new tool to law enforcement, computer modeling has proven successful in the courtroom. It has been used as an interrogation tool to verify what a witness or suspect has said and as a means to refute the testimony of a defense witness.

© Jim Kouri

 

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Jim Kouri

Jim Kouri, CPP is currently fifth vice-president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police... (more)

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