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How Detroit’s arson investigators and a local prosecutor are extinguishing the flames 

The Fire Next Time

Hope for better things — what some Detroiters might have felt when they watched any of the four buildings off Grand River near Livernois and Joy Road burn just over a week ago.

But that's not what the chief of arson and fire investigations in Detroit does.

Chief Charles Simms plans for better things, and is working to lay a solid foundation for Detroit to build on.

In his office downtown, a week before Angels' Night, Simms sits at a round table. There are big jars of candy on it, Tootsie Rolls and Twizzlers — "My lunch," he jokes, not looking nearly old enough to have been with the Detroit Fire Department for 28 years. He smiles amicably and gestures for us to sit, turning periodically to answer his desk phone.

Across the table from him, there is a wall that acts as a white board. On it, a list of solved serial arsons, written in red marker, with the number of fires set and the status of each case. Some number 100+.

Because, not surprising to anyone who lives in metro Detroit, the vast majority of fires in Detroit are arson.

But under Chief Simms' watch, that's changing.

The Motor City Muckraker

Detroiters, it may seem, are a bit jaded when it comes to fire, especially arson. Many don't want to talk about it, preferring to ignore the matter as if that will make it go away. But on any given day in the Motor City, there are 10 to 12 "suspicious" or "intentional" fires. Clearly, not talking about it is not extinguishing the problem.

The media tends to not necessarily help either, jumping on stories of impoverished firehouses: People nationwide saw the video of the Faygo pop can on the fax machine used to alert the firefighters. Even Steven Colbert mocked it.

There are some journalists, though, who take covering Detroit's fires and fire department seriously, and work hard to get information about what's going on to the public. One who stands out is Steve Neavling, better known to many as local gadfly Motor City Muckraker.

Neavling is up day and night, often live reporting fires and the perils of Detroit's fire department. When the Fisher Body Plant went up in flames last week and a firefighter was injured, Neavling reported the event, and posted the scanner recording of the incident to his site, motorcitymuckraker.com. "I try to do live reports as much as possible," Neavling tells Metro Times. "So many people wanna talk — and they feel like the city isn't doing enough about it." They're worried, he says, about their homes and communities.

Neavling monitors the fire scanners, recording 24/7 so he can catch fire calls he might miss. "About this time last year, I asked Mayor Bing's office for copies of the fire runs — where the firefighters are going, and they got back to me and were like, 'We don't know. We don't have those records available,'" he explains. "The only way that I was going to figure out where the fires took place was to listen to every fire run, and that's what I did starting on Jan. 1, and just worked my way up to now."

Neavling meets with us on a few occasions to talk about his work for this article. Each time, his pale, curly red hair dances around his face, and his eyes sparkle behind glasses. One thing is clear: Neavling is passionate about his commitment to reporting on fire. "Fires are burning neighborhoods ... [and there is a] disproportionate response to underserved communities, lower-income families than areas like Midtown and downtown." His voice is soft when he speaks, yet carries the potency of conviction.

"Most houses that burn down, they just sit there like they're ready to collapse, and they're ugly. Those houses don't get torn down at the same rate that the houses closer to Midtown and downtown do. There was a big church on Woodward that burned down, and immediately the Duggan administration had the rest of that church demolished. There was a woman who was on the east side and her neighbor's house had burned, and it was leaning on her house. The fire department told the city, 'If you don't get rid of this house that's leaning against her house, her house is going to burn down.' They didn't remove the house! It's disproportionate and the city's using the fires to their advantage, because there are neighborhoods that the city is writing off.

"It just seems like because it's happening disproportionately in poor neighborhoods, no one's paying attention to it," says Neavling. "All the big media is caught up on the pop can situation," or what's going on downtown and in Midtown, "but they're not seeing what's really happening in these neighborhoods that are being devoured every day."

Worse, says Neavling, echoing what many in Detroit might believe, arsonists "rarely get caught because of it."

Catastrophic Revenge

While it is true Midtown and downtown receive the lion's share of the media's attention, the numbers on the wall in Chief Simms' office tell a different story on who is caught and prosecuted. Behind them, Wayne County's assistant prosecuting attorney in charge of the arson unit, Louisa Papalas, is spearheading justice.

Papalas began her career 20 years ago. A graduate of the University of Detroit (just before it became U-D Mercy), prosecuting, she says, was "a higher calling" to public service. She got her start in homicide, and moved on to the child-abuse unit. When grant funding became available in early 2011 through the Michigan Arson Prevention Committee in conjunction with the National Insurance Crime Bureau to prosecute and investigate arsons, she volunteered. "These are to me the most challenging cases," she tells Metro Times. "They involve circumstantial evidence, building a case on motive, opportunity, [and] what was the means. You have to make juries care about these cases. When you have a burned-out house, it's difficult for people to see the victim — how is anyone victimized if no one was hurt? The insurance company?" You can hear in Papalas' voice that an insurance company is clearly not a sympathetic victim to a metro Detroit jury.

But Papalas knows who is. It's not just the fire department that's a victim, or even an entire neighborhood that's a victim of arson, she explains. "We're all victims of this. Just because someone's not injured, our sense of safety in our community" is affected. And also, she points out, the insurance premiums that are paid.

The Wayne County prosecutor's media liaison provided Metro Times with a 17-page document that lists every arson prosecution since 2011, the beginning of the grant, through last week.

Line item after line item tells the story of arson in Detroit: Anger, revenge, or profit make up about 75 percent of the cases. Anger at landlords or family members, revenge on exes or landlords, and profit via insurance fraud are most prevalent.

The other 25 percent? Mental stability and competency issues.

There's also the serial arsonist — a firebug whose motive can include revenge or anger or mental health problems.

And, in addition, the serial arsonist-scrapper, who sets fires to make it easier for scrapping.

Sometimes, explains Neavling, there is arson as a solution to a community's drug problem: "There's a drug house, and that's one way for the neighbors to get rid of a drug house — burn it down. Firefighters have come under attack for that very reason, because people wanted to see the house burn. Firefighters are extinguishing the fire, and they want the house to burn down."

Nearly all these cases from Wayne County — 87 since 2011, plus two serial arsonists recently arrested for the fires off Grand River — with the exception of those that are pending or found mentally incompetent, have resulted in convictions. With convictions comes restitution, and many receive prison time. Some get sentenced to 50 or more years. (Papalas successfully petitioned the state legislature in 2013 to increase penalties for those who commit arson that results in injury.)

Others are diverted to mental health treatment. Mental health cases, says Papalas, are challenging, because "you know they'll do it again. They don't know how to control their behavior. And they are creating situations where the fire spreads down the block to occupied dwellings, and then you have people homeless and potentially injured over someone who has a thrill. We don't have the capacity to treat that at a local facility here, and unless they're found to be incompetent, if they're found or plead guilty, I ask for prison time. Otherwise, there's not a lot of other options."

Papalas describes the bulk of her work as "handling fraud" and "catastrophic revenge." Often, when it comes to revenge, a defendant will feel like they "got burned" by someone, metaphorically, so in retaliation, they decide to physically burn their offender. She describes text messages defendants have sent, such as threats like "You're gonna burn" and "I've got something hot for you."

She notes that arsons related to auto theft and domestic violence are often handled by prosecutors in the domestic violence and auto units.

"I'm the only prosecutor assigned to the arson unit," she says. "I have the assistance of an investigator interviewing and subpoenaing witnesses. We had a second [prosecutor], but since we lost the grant, we no longer have that."

"We try to charge as many as we can," Papalas continues. "People should not be afraid to come forward and not be afraid to share what they've observed. It's such a refreshing experience when we do get a neighbor that's ready to stand up for their community and their block and say 'This isn't to be tolerated. I don't wanna live in a burned-out neighborhood.' They'll come to court and describe what their neighbor did. I respect the courage that these people have to come forward to reveal what they saw." Papalas says that even if "they'll describe it on a 9-1-1 call, we're able to bring those people to court."

Steve Neavling agrees with Papalas. "I've talked to people who say they can't sleep at night because they're afraid that the abandoned house next door is going to be burned down," he says. "I don't know if there's a lot they can really do except report suspicious behavior."

And when there is a suspicious fire, it's Detroit's arson investigators who step up.

The fire department's arson investigators, says Papalas, are the most hard-working people. "They put their lives at risk, and that's something that I'm immediately impressed with and in awe of. I'm proud to work with them, and I learn every day from them."

Plan of attack, serial arsonists

Chief Simms describes the work of the city's arson center. He says they "attempt to investigate all intentionally set fires, suspicious fires, and undetermined fires. And the way that comes about is the firefighters arrive on the scene and put the fires out, and they make a preliminary call. If they make a call to be either suspicious, intentional, or undetermined, we'll investigate those fires. And we prioritize them."

Occupied homes and occupied dwellings come first, says Simms, followed by occupied commercial properties. Vacant homes and vacant commercial dwellings drop below them.

"Right now," says Simms, "we're averaging 10 to 12 [fires] per day that are suspicious or undetermined."

Simms realizes that with about 140 square miles of city to cover, that's a lot of ground and a lot of investigation to do. Currently, he has seven investigators on staff. By 2015, that number should more than double to 16, as the city has increased his staff, many of whom are currently in training.

In preparation for the increase, "What I've done is I've split the city up into quadrants, so we have four quadrants throughout the city, and once we get our 16 investigators, we'll have four investigators per quadrant," Simms explains, showing us a map of Detroit, carefully quartered into different colors and marked off strategically. "To narrow that down, each investigator will be responsible for roughly eight square miles. I think after that we'll be able to make a huge impact because now they'll be responsible for their own area, versus having seven investigators for the whole 140 square miles of Detroit."

The investigators will be taking a community policing-like approach to their jobs, spending more time in the communities and getting to know the neighbors, speaking with church groups and local businesses, and getting them involved. "Our biggest asset that we have to combat these arsons are citizens," Simms says. "Once they get involved and give us information to go off of, then we'll be able to solve a lot more arsons."

In addition, Simms says they're starting a public education campaign. They've received a grant to post billboards throughout the city to educate the public. "I don't think a lot of people know exactly what arson is, or what's the consequence of committing arsons in the city of Detroit. Laws were passed in 2013 so that now you can get life in prison for committing arson."

Letting people know that arson is not only a crime, but that it can cost them the rest of their lives in prison, Simms says, is important.

Simms admits that there might have been a time when people came to Detroit just to commit arson, but these days, "No, Detroit is not the place to come and commit arson. And if you come and do that in the city, we will come after you. We will prosecute you."

Just this year alone, says Simms, "including an arrest we just made, we were able to arrest and [prosecute] three serial arsonists. All of them admitted to setting hundreds of fires over the years. Those are some big closes for us. And because of that, now we're down about 450 suspicious fires from this time last year."

Angels' Night

Angels' Night, the re-branding of what is still referred to by many as Devil's Night, takes place Oct. 29-31. "Of course Halloween is on Oct. 31," Chief Simms tells us. "People were setting homes on fire. I think a record high for us for that weekend, for those three days, we had 800 fires at one point. And I want to say that was probably in the late '80s. Maybe about 10 or 15 years ago, I believe it was Mayor Archer who came in and said, 'Let's change the name to Angels' Night and try to combat this.'"

Simms explains that since the official christening of Angels' Night, there's been a steady decline in arson during those days, with a small peak in 2010 of 200 fires. In the last few years, however, "We've averaged probably 95 fires for those three nights," total.

Devil's Night, aka Angels' Night, no longer carries the highest number of fires or arsons in the city over the course of the year. While many who were alive during the '80s recall those hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of fires, those days are long gone.

Summertime however, and the Fourth of July — those are the big fire days now, though Independence Day is more accidental fires from fireworks, or Dumpsters, while in general Simms says "we've gotten up to 15 or 20 fires per night [in the summer]. Of course, we don't have the manpower to investigate all of those fires, but we estimate that probably 60 to 70 percent of those are arson." Annually, Simms says the city sees about 8,000 fires, total (that includes accidental fires), and he notes that number is dropping.

Regardless, Angels' Night still has a reputation that can send chills up Detroit's collective spine, so Simms and the city prepare vigilantly for it. "We've actually been preparing for quite some time now," he says. "For the last 30 days, we've gone out, I've sent my guys out, to post up signs on houses. We have two different types of signs. We have reward posters that we post up on burnt dwellings, and also we have 'This house is being watched' signs. They've gone out, and I would say we've probably posted 2,000 of those signs throughout the city. That's the first thing." The second part, again, is the community: speaking with the neighbors and getting everyone involved.

Simms sits with a cup of tea, methodically reviewing for us the preparations he and the city have made with a multitude of other agencies and community groups: "On these three nights, we have outside agencies that will come in and help us," he says. "So we'll have the Detroit arson section, Detroit police, state police, Wayne County sheriff, ATF, Homeland Security, and Wayne State University police, and the U.S. Postal police."

In addition, Simms counts 90 people just on his task force for those three nights.

Including the community volunteers, Simms estimates the total mobilization for Angels' Night to be in the thousands.

Papalas says "citywide Angel's Night patrols have been incredibly effective in reducing the occurrence of arsons in the city." So much so, she says if every night were Angels' Night, arsonists would cease to be, and she'd be out of a job.

Resources

"Any time firefighters are dispatched, I know when they're dispatched, how long it takes them to get there, whether there was anybody injured, whether there were rigs that broke down, how much damage was caused," Neavling tells us of his time listening to the fire scanner calls. He argues that the total number of suspicious fires is closer to 82 percent. "You can really put together a picture," he says, by listening to the fire scanner. "What I was most shocked by was how often their trucks break down."

The city and the fire department, says Neavling, "need to make investments in the actual firefighters, the equipment ... Here's a great example: there's two-way radios that firefighters use during fires, and usually there will be four firefighters who travel on each truck or rig, so all four of them would normally have a two-way radio. The city took two of everybody's radios, so four people had to split two radios. The city needed the parts from some of the other ones so they could fix these. It's a bizarre situation: we're talking about something as simple as two-way radios so that they don't get killed in the fires or that they could communicate properly."

Both Neavling and Papalas observe that the Detroit Fire Department is overworked and underpaid. Neavling points out that their pensions were cut, their equipment gets stolen, and we heard on-the-street dissatisfaction with cuts to the firemen's health insurance, pay, and vacation time. Still, Papalas says, the DFD is dedicated.

The fire department, says Simms, "has shifted more towards prevention, and we're part of, actually, prevention, because with the criminal part of it, and us prosecuting, arresting arsonists, of course we're preventing other arsonists or we're [giving them] second thoughts."

It's a reprioritization and better allocation of resources, says Simms, by the city under the new mayor.

The mayor, and other keys to change

Simms talks about Mayor Duggan's plan to remove blight as a key to decreasing arsons in the city. "I would say probably 60 percent [of arsons] happen in vacant homes," Simms says. "So once all the vacant homes are removed, that will decrease our arsons."

"Mayor Duggan," agrees Neavling, "is actually on to the solution: You have to get rid of the abandoned houses and abandoned structures. You've got more than 85,000 abandoned structures, which is an arsonist's dream come true, so they have to continue to demolish these houses. They're doing 200 houses a week, on average, so eventually it'll be about 10,000 a year. So you've just got to keep doing that."

According to Neavling, "a disproportionate number of houses that were in foreclosure ended up being burned down this year. That could easily be someone that's about to lose their home and wants to collect insurance on it. A lot of those houses are owned by suburban people who lived there; they had an investment in the house and they can collect quick insurance money on it ... We have 70,000 Detroit houses that are going into foreclosure next year, and if there's a disproportionate number of houses that are being burned in foreclosure, there's likely going to be an increase in arson next year."

Chief Simms, on the other hand, notes that "we actually received a report from the National Insurance Crime Bureau — they give out these reports quarterly — and we had the biggest drop in insurance claims for smoke and fire damage over the last two years. We had a 23 percent drop compared to all the areas around us."

Simms is seeking to expand Public Act 413, which came in effect in 2001 regarding car insurance, to home insurance. The act, he explains, says that if your car is worth more than $2,000 and it burns, then you must go to the fire department for a form for your insurance company. What that did, says Simms, is drop the number of car fires from over 100 per week, to 10-12 each week. By expanding it to homes, and requiring homeowners to come in for the form for their insurance company, "We've had confessions" he says. In other cases, the people don't show up, or don't say anything, and in those cases, their insurance claim will be denied.

As Chief Simms reviews more plans with us, including one to reinstate the "junior firesetter program" as an alternative for youth offenders, a new tips-by-social media strategy on Facebook, and a $5,000 reward for tips that lead to those responsible for arson, his enthusiasm shines through.

He talks about Papalas' good work, and even more about his team, their growth, and their extensive training. This isn't a man overwhelmed, worn out, or defeated. He's spent nearly 30 years with the Detroit Fire Department, and he is far from being ready for retirement. In fact, right now, you could even say he's on a roll.

"When I came on the job, I said I wanted to finish my career in arson," he says. "I came up here in 2001 to arson. And when you come up, you come up as a lieutenant. I was a lieutenant until 2012. I became a captain in 2012, and then in 2014, chief," he tells us.

"I think there's an energy going through the city right now, and we have that energy. We have the resources now. The city, they're attempting to supply us with anything we need to make a difference. It's a good feeling. It gives you a sense of pride, of motivation to make a difference. I'm really excited. I'm excited on where we're gonna be as a city and as a unit even five years from now.

"I do see light at the end of the tunnel," he continues, a smile spreading across his face as he gestures to the writing on the wall. "It's proof the suspicious fires are coming to an end."

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