Bystanders watch a home engulfed in flames. Firemen are on the scene fighting a unpredictable enemy in hopes of saving, at the very least, a remnant of what use to be. Not too far away an inspector awaits his moment to assess the scene to try and determine the cause of the inferno. But what does he look for? Where does he begin? How does he know what is important to determining the cause of the destruction and what is an inevitable result of a fire gone awry?
A group of individuals gathered in a small room of the High Point Public Library to listened to Assistant Fire Chief Mark Levins explain how to investigate a fire scene. They aren’t a cohort of arson detectives looking to improve their sleuthing skills, but members of the Murder We Write chapter of Sisters in Crime, a non-profit writers’ organization dedicated to the advancement of female mystery writers.
“For your knowledge of writing books, I think it is important for you to know what to look for and what not to look for,” Levins said. “Basically we are going to dive into what happens when a fire starts all the way into what happens when the fire stops.”
Writers with pens at the ready were determined not to miss a word of what the assistant fire chief had to say. Despite the organization’s name, the event was open to anyone.
“I don’t write crime nor am I a sister,” said Marc Fountain, who works as a webmaster for the Murder We Write chapter, touching his Sisters in Crime button displayed prominently on his lapel. “But they are a supportive group. I write young adult [fiction] and want my work to ring true to the reader who has no idea and the expert.”
Legitimacy was a common thread attendees wanted to take away from the informational session. Levins answered questions pertaining to everything from resources on case studies to investigative techniques during suspect interviews.
“One time I received a call from a detective who said that he had some chicken in the oven,” Levins said. “He needed to know how long it would take for chicken to be reduced to ash when set on broil because they could use this information to determine the time of death of their victim.”
Levins went on to explain that there was a resource called the NFPA 921 “Guide for Fire Explosions and Investigations” that helped investigators properly examine the causes of fires using peer reviewed data. Several mystery writers immediately wanted to know where they could get their hands on such material.
“I would like to be able to compare my scenes to actual cases for authenticity,” one writer said from the back of the room.
Before Levins could direct the her on where to acquire the publication, several members suggested that she use her new-found detective skills to track a copy down online.
Levins also shared some of his interview techniques by pulling author Jennie Spallone from the audience to ask her a series of general questions. As he asked questions about where she grew up and what route she took to get to his talk, he made a mental note of her body movement, which he revealed later.
“See I already know when you are going to lie,” Levins said. “When you answer you look up and to the right. If you were going to lie you would do the opposite.”
Aside from sharing types of fire classifications, fire chemistry, the differences between fires and burns, the dos and don’ts of evidence collection and how to tell if a person died before or during a fire, Levins also shared moments of some of his memorable closed cases.
“There was one lady whose house had been vandalized and set on fire,” Levins said.” The words, ‘Die b****, die’ and ‘Allah is great’ were spray-painted on a wall.”
It turned out that even though the woman had been recorded on video as being in Myrtle Beach at the time of the fire, cell phone towers placed her in High Point, which helped Levins prove that she had started the fire herself to avoid making additional payments on her family home to a developer she had sold the house to in a lease-to-buy deal.
Every account Levin’s shared regarding closed cases, technological advances in arson investigation and dispelling myths regarding fires prompted enthusiastic reactions from the crowd.
“People will try to start a fire from inside of a car,” said Thomas Dew, another attendee. “Not knowing that the fumes [can] catch them on fire.”
“Yeah,” Levins said, “and then they say they were nowhere near the fire, but they have no eyebrows.”