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The Investigation of an Arson Attack

Introduction

This is a case of an arson attack that occurred at around 11:30 pm at a semi-detached dwelling of 17 Hill Lane situated at the outskirts of a market town in a rural district. The act of arson claimed four lives of occupants. The investigators suspected Mike Golding as the perpetrator. Mike was in a failed intimate relationship with one of the victims (Sue Crowe). Golding also has previous case of manslaughter.

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Role of the investigator in this investigation

Arson results into damages to property, injury, and possible loss of lives. In this case, the act resulted into deaths of Ron Haynes aged 45 years, Sue Crowe aged 16 years, Pam Crowe aged 10 years, and Mike Crowe aged 7 years. Consequently, the investigator should determine the cause of the fire that resulted into death of four occupants and damages to property. The investigator must also collect verifiable evidence that must result to arrest and prosecution of Mike Golding (the main suspect). The investigator must also be ready to testify during court proceedings. This is because the investigator is a part of law enforcement agency.

The investigator must identify, gather, and preserve evidence (Bouquard, 2004). This is useful for further investigations, scientific analyses, and presentation during court proceedings. Investigator must ensure that there is no contamination of evidence, document evidence using different data collection strategies such as photograph, note taking, container labelling, and evidence tags among others. He must also gather evidence from the area where the fire started. This must include a source of ignition that Mike Golding used (petrol accelerant). An accelerant is important for a laboratory analysis, and evidence. The investigator must label every piece of evidence with his name, date, case, and location among other identification techniques. The investigator must present the bin bag of Mike Golding containing clothing items that have a smell of accelerant for further analyses. Fleece from the alleyway near 17 Hill Lane is also useful for further analyses to confirm if it marches that found in the bin bag of Mike Golding.

The investigator must prevent contamination of evidence. Arson cases are difficult to prove. Thus, it is necessary that he controls access to the scene at 17 Hill Lane. This is necessary to protect available evidence before collection, transportation, and storage. For instance, the fire officers did not remove the four bodies in haste to provide time for preservation, arrangement of transportation, and collection of evidence (Duttelle, 2011). John Boston (Fire Officer) allowed the crew to access the building. They confirmed four dead bodies, two in each of the front two rooms. Subsequently, the paramedic confirmed no signs of life. However, after consultation with the police, they decided not to remove the bodies in haste, because of the preservation of evidence and safety of the crews (Doak and McGourlay, 2009).

Controlling contamination of evidence also requires restriction of the use of some tools that may tamper with evidence. The investigator must prevent cross-contamination of evidence through using clean, disposable items, and using different containers for storage. Container of petrol that was in the scene of arson would provide sufficient evidence of the type of accelerant Mike Golding used. The senior fire investigator believed that the fire could have destroyed some cans. The investigator must also ensure that there is no contamination of evidence during both transportation and storage. The investigator must be careful with fire debris. They should be separate from other pieces of evidence. The investigator must also correspond with laboratory technicians on submission of the remaining can for analyses of the accelerant. The investigator must also ensure that packaging and transportation of evidence such as the four burnt bodies should not experience further damages, or any changes to their conditions.

The investigator must also create and maintain a chain of custody of evidence items. This implies maintenance of written records and documentation of evidence samples. Such information must include where the investigators found the bodies, accelerant can, fleece from the jacket, and the bin bag. They must also include date, and other useful notes.

Since some of the victims died of carbon monoxide poisoning while others died of burns, the investigator must establish the condition of building, fire alarms, and suppression systems. This is useful in establishing the ventilation conditions, timelines of the fire, scenarios, and possibilities of vandalism.

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Review of the evidence and probative value

Investigator who wants to obtain evidence of the highest quality must follow certain procedures in his investigation. This is useful in the criminal justice system for law enforcement, and ensures that there is a need for high levels investigation, and adherence to arson investigation procedures. This ensures that that investigator does not meet legal and flawed evidence challenges during court proceedings (Ingram, 2012).

Arson investigator relies on teamwork for its success. In addition, the investigation must ensure consistency and reasonable investigation procedures and practices to fit a specific case of arson, since no arson can exactly match previous ones. Still, following procedures and practices are necessary for effective investigation, solving, and ensuring arrest and prosecution of the suspect in the arson case (Stelfox, 2009).

Arson investigators have used a consistent approach of witness-driven. This approach may be useful in this case since most of the evidence relied on witness accounts, and results from further investigations.

Witness-driven approach is a “tactical, investigative approach for all incidents based on the scientific method that maximize the amount of reliable physical, witness, and documentary evidence, and data at a fire scene while helping to avoid evidence contamination or destruction” (FEMA, 2012). This approach relies on immediate interviews of witnesses, and systematic documentation, and storage of gathered pieces of evidence.

Initial examination of the arson scene

This is useful in providing the investigator with basic information such as the origin of the fire, access and interview eyewitnesses, and people who were present at the scene or people near the scene during the incident (Daeid, 2004). The investigator may also interview fire officers and police who accessed the scene first and located and protected available pieces of evidence. After this first size up, the investigator must turn his attention to locating eyewitnesses and record their testimonies.

Since the occupants of the house at the time of the attack perished all, the investigator job begins by immediate identification of neighbours, passer-by witnesses, or the person who reported the case. Information gathering should start from the occupants of the house, eyewitness, the witness who did not see the start of the fire but has useful information regarding previous events, and finally the suspect. This will ensure that the investigator has pertinent evidence regarding the arson.

Maxine Crowe provides a detailed account of Mike Golding and his relation with Sue. She also narrates of strange occurrences at the house including missing keys, changed positions of the items and Ron double locking the door. According to Maxime, Golding did occasionally stop at the house but was never a resident there.

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Lucy Golding, the mother of the suspect, provides an account of his son’s movement on the day of the arson attack. These details match the time of arson and relate them to Mike. She also identifies several items that belong to Mike, including the fleece jacket, the bin bag among other items belonging to the deceased (Sue).

Kate Love also gives her account of the arson attack that directly links Mike Golding to the attack. She is the witness who reported the fire. Dianne Nicholls provides details of the incident and sums it up with the distinct sound of Mike Golding’s motorbike, and the fact that the bike did not slow down or stop, but maintained a steady speed after the explosion.

Information from the main suspect, Mike is also useful. However, the investigator can only rely on marks and burns on his body due to his stand of “no comments”.

There are also strong pieces of information from other witnesses such as Sue’s friends and neighbours who had knowledge of their strained relationship with Mike. A number of phone calls confirm threats and pleads that Mike made to Sue.

There are also pieces of information from detailed examination of different scenes including the suspect’s home. A detailed analysis of the scene is necessary in order to recognise, identify, and reconstruct the scene of the fire using fire patterns. This investigation is useful in identification of the fire’s origin, spread, patterns, accelerant, and possible cause or motive of the arson. This is where corroboration of facts, results, and circumstances from witnesses is useful. Detailed investigation of the scene begins with information and visits from professionals. There are a number of professional officers who investigated the scene and retrieved useful evidence such as an accelerant can and holdall (Kevin Keane). Investigators also conducted a search at Mrs. Golding home and found evidence linking Mike to the arson attack.

Follow-ups investigations are crucial for identification and successful prosecution of the suspect (FEMA, 2012). Careful review of information gathered should provide direct lead to the main suspect. All evidence must relate the suspect with the incident. This is the case of Mike Golding where key witnesses, professionals, and other witnesses’ accounts link him to the fatal fire attack.

Further Investigative Strategies

There are cases of further investigations in this case to ascertain evidence and accounts of witnesses of the main suspect. Investigators can use scientific methods to establish evidence in a case related to arson. These methods involve problem identification, observation, hypotheses, and experiments. Investigators collect information, generate possible links with the problem, test information in attempts to answer hypotheses, and develop theories that provide solutions to the problem.

In this case, further investigations look at potential ignition, container and accelerant, and link them in order to prove that Mike Golding was the main suspect. A number of scientific investigations link Golding to the arson attack (White, 2010). Most forensic investigations linked Mike Golding with the incident. These included fleece examination, examination of Golding’s bike, DNA on Sue’s earrings, analyses of Golding’s injuries, and physical examination of distance among other elaborate tests (Redsicker and O’Connor, 1996).

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Investigators can also use fire dynamics and fire life cycle as forms of conducting further investigation. Investigators rely on fire life cycles so as to determine cases of arson attacks. They have established that uncontrolled fire undergoes through stages such as ignition, spread, flashover, and decay (Drysdale, 1999). This investigation relies on physical and scientific methods in conducting investigations of arson attacks. Investigators use such findings to prove a particular scenario, or rule out alternatives (Vacca and Rudolph, 2011). For instance, Andrew Parkes concluded that a fire service ‘sniffer’ dog did not give any positive indications that the arsonist had used a common fire accelerant. In the living room, there was a small under-stairs cupboard, and the investigator detected a hydrocarbon smell, typical of petrol in one area. Near to the entrance to this cupboard, there was a preserved area of carpet or underlay, which corresponded with the remains of the plastic petrol can. Following Andrews examination, he established that there had been a petrol vapour explosion followed by an intense fire in the premises and that the arsonist used petrol accelerant to ignite the fire.

Investigative strategy also involves the use of a systematic approach. This approach involves conducting investigation using analyses of components such as human elements, physical objects, products and environmental factors at the scene (Jickells and Negrusz, 2008). The environment refers to the scene of the incident, fire artefacts represent the products, and the arsonist refers to the human element. This system provides a wide scope in order to collect evidence about the incident. It accumulates probative evidence from different scenes that relate to the arson attack. It gives a conclusive scenario on how arson took place. It provides a strong argument due to information from different sources. In this case, an investigator may use different elements of investigations related to the arson and the arsonist. Mr. Parkes systematically relates different pieces of information from different sources such as clothing items found in the bin bag, petrol residue, fleece from the jacket and its smell of petrol. In addition, he also noticed melting and scorching on the jacket to indicate that the wearer was close to a fierce fire. The fleece, denim jeans, the holdall that had petrol residue, a petrol container, clothing items from the bin bag had recently been in contact with petrol, and damages to clothing items indicate an exposure to fierce a fire of 17 Hill Lane.

Policy Decisions

A number of countries have adopted several methodologies and scientific approaches in studying fire or arson cases. Some investigators believe that there are no standard methods in investigating fire scene. However, others prefer scientific approaches. The process of investigation must prove that every evidence and accounts of witnesses (origin and cause) meet minimum standards set by the arson investigators (Chandler, 2009). In addition, such accounts must also be reliable for admissibility in the court of law (Britain Law Commission, 2009). However, we should treat arson investigation procedures and practices as both science and art.

Most arson investigators rely on the use of published texts such as Kirk’s Fire Investigation and NFPA Fire Protection Handbook among others (DeHaan, 2000; (NFPA 921, 2001). However, some critics believe that such texts only provide a basic foundation for arson investigations. A proper fire or arson investigation depends on the expertise and experience of investigators. This means that the investigator cannot only rely on rules and formula of science in investigating an incident, but also the reliability and validity of investigations rely on the cross-examination and experts’ accounts during court proceedings. This is because arson investigation relies on the opinion of investigators. Critics have based their arguments on the fact that origin, causes, and materials arsonists use constantly change. Thus, such materials have diverse effects on the behaviour of the fire (Quintiere, 1998). As a result, the investigator must adopt basic steps, and enhance them by his opinions and expertise in order to evaluate all possibilities of origin and cause of the fire.

We must support both scientific and investigators’ opinions and knowledge about fire investigations. This is the only way we can prove that evidence has weight, is admissible, and can lead to arrest and subsequent prosecution of the perpetrator. This approach has proved useful in the case of Mike Golding.

Confidential information

Investigators have challenges regarding sharing information with other civil investigators, or the media. This is because such parties may disclose confidential and sensitive pieces of evidence to the public. Such processes can result into jeopardising the investigation. Such civil investigators can ruin or disrupt confidential information and investigative process. Therefore, effective communication is necessary among various investigators.

Different investigative teams have their own priorities regarding the outcome of the process. Any release of confidential information can only lead to serious legal challenges termed as “bad faith” acts. Thus, both investigators must cooperate when handling confidential information regarding sensitive cases like arson (US Department of Justice, 2000).

The media have tendencies of creating sensationalism in cases of such crimes like arson. This may imply that media reports of crime do not match reality especially in sensitive crimes (Maxfield and Babbie, 2011). The idea is to favour exceptional cases rather than common ones. Such investigators tend to rush against time and inform the public of case outcomes. At the same time, their main concern is that the investigator shall not share confidential information with them. Such is the challenge of involving the media in an investigative process (Mason, 2003).

The usages and access to information remain a crucial issue on arson investigation processes. However, the investigator can access information from various sources.

In this case, most members of the public realised the need to cooperate and volunteer information necessary for successful investigation, and prosecution of the alleged offender. This is usually on a voluntary basis and is the most fundamental source of evidence for criminal investigation process. In this case, we have seen various witnesses such as family members, neighbours, relatives, friends, and members of the public testify against the accused. We have also noticed how each witness account links or fail to link Mike Golding with the arson attack. In all, most testimonies of these witnesses link Mike Golding with arson.

The investigator can rely on the legal process such as the use of subpoena to obtain useful information. This process may make the obtained information remain confidential. However, in this case, the investigator did not meet such challenges as most witnesses cooperated with the process.

The roles of Maxine Crowe and Lucy Golding are crucial for the success of this case. They must cooperate and provide all relevant information linking Mike Golding with the case. These witnesses have crucial information, but their testimonies may not be sufficient for concluding the processes.

The investigator used several witnesses that have knowledge of Mike Golding, his relationship with Sue, and the purchase of petrol. This is voluntary information from Lyn Noakes and Janice Hunt of the Spot Service Station who linked Mike Golding with the purchase of petrol from the station.

The investigator can withhold sensitive information from other parties. However, successful investigation of arson relies on cooperation of all concerned parties (Monas, 2007). Withholding such information may depend on the progress of the investigation.

Additional considerations

These include testimonies from other sources, such as Michael Dean who never took threats from Mike Golding seriously. Though such testimonies are relevant to the case, they do not form parts of substantial claims that link Golding to the arson attack. We can also say this scenario in Maxine’s testimony. It does not offer substantial claim to the attack, but provides background information about Mike and the relationship with Sue. Jane Lewis also offers additional information about the suspect that we can consider. She had been Mike Golding’s probation officer for more than three years during Mikes’ probation. In the past, the police had arrested Mike of murder. However, in the murder case, the court acquitted Mike due to lack of sufficient evidence. Murder and arson are crimes that relate; thus, we can link such information and provide substantial evidence against Mike (Elliot and Quinn, 2007).

There are additional considerations that link Mike Golding with the arson attack at 17 Hall Lane, such as Golding emotional reaction to pictures of the victims. He was also suffering from anxiety and stress (Petherick, 2005). This case is challenging due lack of comments from the accused. However, this scenario also presents an opportunity and potential way to link Mike Golding to the incident.

We can consider injuries and burns Mike Golding sustained during the attack. Petrol and other accelerants have tendencies to produce flammable vapour. There is a clear evidence linking Mike to the arson. Andrew also makes this observation, “melting and scorching was present on the jacket, this was indicative of the wearer having been close to an intense fire. In his opinion, the fleece and denim jeans had been subject to a flash fire caused by a petrol/air fire explosion”. Accelerants like petrol have flash fire (‘terrific explosion’ and the flames as Kate Love describes) and pool fire. As a result, Mike was unlucky and sustained burns and injuries from the ignition.

Investigators have relied on burns and injuries for demonstrating the connection between the perpetrator and the arson attack (Ogle et al 2003). Mike Golding sustained burns and injuries from flash fire. There are burns and injuries on Mikes’ body as Donald Paskin (a Plastic Surgeon) noted after examining Golding four days after the fire. These were above the right eye (a recent superficial injury), inside the left wrist (a flat scar that could be a recent injury, possibly caused by a burn), and at the base of the thumb (4 cm scratch running along the base of the thumb, which looks recent as it has not clinically broken the skin).

However, Mike does not confirm or deny these claims. There were remains of an accelerant container and examination also revealed that the holdall had been in contact with the petrol in the recent past. Kevin Keane observation provides additional explanation to this as follows “although only one 5-litre petrol container was in the fire debris, it was realistic that the arsonist had used around 10 litres of petrol. The fire could have destroyed another petrol container completely. The holdall found was large enough to hold two 5-litre petrol containers, and this was a realistic quantity to have created the damage sustained by the building in the explosion”. It is clear that a flash fire and explosion injured Golding. The only accelerant linked to Mike was the petrol that has abilities of generating vapour flames. This is also the same accelerant Mike had bought from the Spot Service Station. The investigators found no challenges linking injuries and burns to Mike and fire at 17 Hall Lane. These injuries and burns were not at the wrong places as Dr. Tarique Hussain (Police Surgeon) had noticed. He noted redness and a swelling around his right eye. He also noted a reddish linear abrasion by his right hand and a purplish lesion by his left wrist”. Thus, such physical evidence on Mike linked him to the arson attack. Mikes’ burns and injuries show a pattern of burns from flash fire. Additional investigation from Shane Woolley (SOCO) also showed the relationship between the bin bag and clothing items and the smell of accelerants.

Scientific and technical knowledge of the investigators proved, beyond reasonable doubts, that Mike Golding was the main suspect related to the arson attack of 17 Hall Lane. This implies any alibi from Mike Golding would not exonerate him from such accusations as all the evidence partially or fully linked him to the attack.

Reference List

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Britain Law Commission 2009, The admissibility of expert evidence in criminal proceedings in England and Wales: a new approach to the determination of evidentiary reliability: a consultative report, The Stationery office, Norwich.

Chandler, R 2009, Fire Investigation, Delmar Cengage Learning, Connecticut.

Daeid, N 2004, Fire Investigation, CRC Press, New York.

DeHaan, J 2000, Kirk’s Fire Investigation, 5th edn, Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, N.J.

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Drysdale, D 1999, Introduction to Fire Dynamics, 2nd edn, John Wiley & Sons, Chichester.

Duttelle, A 2011, An introduction to crime scene investigation, Jones and Bartlett, London.

Elliot, C and Quinn, F 2007, The English legal system, Pearson Education, London.

FEMA 2012, Witness-Driven Fire Investigation Protocol, Web.

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Jickells, S and Negrusz, A 2008, Clarke’s analytical forensic toxicology, Pharmaceutical Press, London.

Mason, P 2003, Criminal visions: media representations of crime and justice, Willan, Cullompton.

Maxfield, M and Babbie, E 2011, Basics of Research Methods for Criminal Justice and Criminology, Wadsworth, New York.

Monas, E 2007, Evaluating scientific evidence: an interdisciplinary framework for intellectual due process, Cambridge University Press, London.

NFPA 2001, A Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations, National Fire Protection Association, Massachusetts.

Ogle, R, Haussmann, G, Lucas, R, Carpenter, A, and Morris, D. 2003. The Scientific Investigation of Arson Fires, SIAF, Illinois.

Petherick, W 2005, Serial Crime: Theoretical and Practical Issues in Behavioral Profiling, Academic Press, New York.

Quintiere, J 1998, Principles of Fire Behavior, Del Mar Publishers, New York.

Redsicker, D and O’Connor, J 1996, Practical Fire and Arson Investigation: Practical Aspects of Criminal & Forensic Investigation, 2nd edn, CRC-Press, New York.

Stelfox, P 2009, Criminal investigation: an introduction to principles and practice, Willan, Cullompton.

US Department of Justice 2000, Fire and Arson Scene Evidence: A Guide for Public Safety Personnel, NIJ, Florida.

Vacca, JR and Rudolph, K 2011, Systems forensics, investigation, and response, Jones & Bartlett Learning, Sudbury, MA.

White, P 2010, Crime scene to court: the essentials of forensic science, Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge.

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