The Suburbanite
  • New state registry targets arsonists

  • The state’s new arson registry started in July. So far, 67 people are on the list. Unlike the sexual offender registry, the one devoted to arson-related crimes is not accessible by the public. Those who created the new law say it is designed to serve as a tool for fire investigators.

    • email print
  • The signs often are plastered on plywood covering what used to be a window or door of a building destroyed by flames.
    “Fire officials suspect this fire was a result of ARSON. A reward of up to $5,000 may be granted at the discretion of the Ohio Blue Ribbon Arson Committee ... from its reward fund to person(s) furnishing information ... leading to the identification of person(s) responsible for this fire.”
    Sometimes, the house was occupied by a family. Other times, it was vacant. Flames can spread to surrounding homes. And they put firefighters and others in danger.
    But solving arson cases — and, particularly, finding evidence of who was responsible — can be challenging, according to fire officials.
    That’s one of the reasons the state launched the new Ohio Arson Registry in July. The registry is maintained and managed by the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, part of the state Attorney General’s Office.
    “The idea is to give law enforcement another tool,” said Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. “You could be investigating an arson and have no idea that there’s an arsonist who lives around the corner (and) that might or might not be relevant, but you’d probably at least want to know that so you can interview that person and question them — it’s a tool.”
    Under the law, those convicted of arson, aggravated arson or an arson-related offense must register in person with their county sheriff’s department. The offender must register once a year for life, including providing fingerprints and palm prints.
    So far, 67 people are on the list, according to the attorney general’s office.
    The database is a resource for fire investigations, said Josh Hobbs, assistant chief of the fire and explosion investigation bureau for the State Fire Marshal’s office, part of the Ohio Department of Commerce.
    Arson “can be difficult to prove,” Hobbs said. “It’s (often) a more time-consuming crime scene investigation.”
    Less physical evidence typically exists compared to a non-arson crime scene, he said.
    John Whitlatch, division chief for the Canton Fire Department, echoed that viewpoint.
    “We can almost always identify a fire as an arson, but very often do not have enough evidence to make arrests or convictions,” he said.
    “I recently took a class and was told that arson is the highest dollar-loss crime in America and the least convicted crime in America,” Whitlatch said. “Sad but I believe it to be true.”
    Motives for arson fires vary, including habitual fire-starters, covering up crime scenes, domestic disputes, retaliation in drug deals gone bad, attempting to kill or injure someone and insurance fraud, Hobbs said. Arson fires also are sometimes set to make it easier to access and steal copper pipes, he said.
    Page 2 of 3 - With the arson registry, however, “the only difficulty ... is not all convicted arsonists are habitual fire setters,” he said.
    The registry could be used to match the description of someone on the list to a person witnesses saw at or near the fire scene, Hobbs said.
    “It can’t hurt,” he said. “It’s got to be an additional tool in the box ... it’s not a fix all by any means.”
    But “I do believe down the road you’re going to see some crimes solved because of it.”
    Unlike the sexual offender’s registry, access to the one devoted to arsonists is restricted to certain fire officials and members of law enforcement for use in investigations. The public cannot access the information.
    The question of whether to make the arson registry public did not emerge until the “11th hour” of the legislative process, said Ohio Sen. Timothy Schaffer, R-Lancaster, who sponsored the bill. “Because it was the (firefighters) that brought the idea to us, not the public.”
    “The two registries (sexual offenders and arson) really came from different vantage points,” he said. “ ... Our only concern was getting the (information) in the hands of firefighters (to help solve arson cases).”
    Timothy Foerster, of Canton, who lost his home to suspected arson in 2010, likes the idea.
    “They need a list like that because they have a list for sexual offenders,” he said. But “I think it’d be a great thing if it was public knowledge.”
    Foerster, who lived in the home on Michael Place SW with his teenage daughter, said the fire was devastating. He lost everything inside — photos, clothing and keepsakes, including an urn. As flames raged he stood outside in shorts with no shoes, no shirt.
    Firefighters suspected arson, but nobody was charged. Whoever started the fire may have thought the house was vacant because two vandalized windows were covered with wood.
    “It makes me madder than heck,” Foerster said of the unsolved case. He owed a few thousand dollars on the land contract for the house. “I’d probably want to snap (the arsonist’s) neck; it still bothers me, it still gives my (19-year-old) kid nightmares.”
    “I kind of like just to put it behind me, and maybe it was God’s will to get us out of that neighborhood.”
    One of the first Stark County court cases to implement the registry involves a Massillon woman who recently pleaded guilty to aggravated arson, a second-degree felony.
    Her attorney, Anthony Koukoutas, questions the fairness and practicality of the arson registry in her case. He noted his client tried to set herself on fire. The woman has mental health issues, he said. She also was intoxicated at the time.
    Page 3 of 3 - “I can see if it applied (strictly) to those individuals who ... commit arson for insurance purposes ... (or) have an unnatural fascination with fire, but then you have individuals who have mental illness or may have been intoxicated at the time (and he or she) started a small fire that is extinguished quickly ... but do you put them on a registry with no (prior) history?”
    DeWine, the attorney general, said that “anytime you write a law there’s going to be cases where you can make an argument where that particular part of the law should not apply.”
    But “the good news for her is it’s not a public record,” DeWine added. “She only has to do it once a year so it’s not really a burdensome (requirement).”
    Koukoutas said his client is not likely to set another fire. “It seems more like feel-good legislation by the guys in Columbus to make them look tough on crime,” he said. “It really doesn’t solve anything.”
    Even when mental illness is involved, Schaffer said, the resulting fire could still “harm (others) or get quickly out of control (and) that’s a concern for all of us.”
    “Nobody can plan any fire,” he said. “You cannot plan on a fire being contained ... and you cannot plan on fire not hurting someone else (because) fire has a mind of its own and it’s going to spread.”
    Schaffer said that a Lancaster firefighter suggested the concept after he saw a registry for the state of California. The Ohio Association of Professional Fire Fighters backed the proposal.
    “My bottom line was this idea of creating a registry of convicted arsonists in Ohio is because of the high rate of recidivism,” Schaffer said of arsonists. “It was a no-brainer; this is a good idea because we want to prevent future arsons and solve current investigations on arsons and having a registry will really help speed those investigations along.”
    The registry can be a deterrent to repeat arson offenses, Schaffer said. It’s designed for the “greater good of the public,” he said. “I know it’s going to save lives.”

    Comments are currently unavailable on this article

      Events Calendar