ROD AMMON: Welcome to this special edition of the IAAI’s CFITrainer.Net podcast. Today, we’re going to meet the newest IAAI Investigator of the Year, Andrea Buchanan. She is an assistant fire marshal and the supervisor of fire/arson investigations for the Alexandria Fire Department in Alexandria, Virginia. This spring, Assistant Fire Marshal Buchanan was presented with IAAI’s Investigator of the Year Award for her work on the Southern Towers fire. IAAI gives the Investigator of the Year Award annually to an individual who has shown outstanding achievement through the use of professional expertise in both the criminal and civil fields of arson control. Assistant Fire Marshal Buchanan is with us today to talk about the Southern Towers case where her determination led to the arrest of a dangerous and somewhat unexpected serial arsonist who was terrorizing a high-rise apartment building. Welcome, Assistant Fire Marshal Buchanan, and thanks for talking with us today.
ANDREA BUCHANAN: You’re welcome.
ANDREA BUCHANAN: The Southern Tower complex is a high-rise complex constructed in the 1960s. It’s a total of, I believe, five high-rise residential buildings. They’re concrete in construction, and they have no sprinkler systems and manual fire alarm. What started the case was I responded for a report of a fire in the hallway. A fire was set in the carpet, small, probably the size of a cantaloupe, if you can think of that in circumference, but it was in the middle of the hallway and in the middle of the night, and looking at that and knowing that we had no sprinkler system, I took notice of it and did a complete origin-and-cause report and started doing an investigation, speaking with the folks on the floor where the original fire started. Due to the fact that it’s 1,500 people in the single building that we were dealing with, most of them are new to this country and have very limited English skills, older residents, and residents with young families. I felt that there was an urgency in this because I felt that there were going to be other fires, and it was correct. We started having similar fires, but they were all small in nature. The fires were in the middle of the floor on the carpeting. They were in the trash rooms. They were pamphlets, bulletins on the board, so it started escalating at which time I really felt that I had a serial arsonist on my hands.
ROD AMMON: So I mean, first of all, it’s pretty insightful, I think, for somebody to take the concern that you did with small fires, but I understand in this situation with so many people in this building that that raised the alarm for you I guess even sooner. So what happened? Who did you reach out to?
ANDREA BUCHANAN: Of course I got with my staff and told them - and in all fires, no matter how small, we were to handle them as if it was the largest fire. I wanted a complete origin-and-cause done. Also, as a task force officer, with the Falls Church ATF, I reached out to my federal partners. I explained to them what I had, the unimaginable size of the building that I had, and I had really no set patterns. At that time, Falls Church stepped in, and the ATF were fabulous in giving me the manpower, the insight, the equipment that I needed to continue with this investigation.
ROD AMMON: So there was a lot of work from what I understand. Can you talk about the process and how it built?
ANDREA BUCHANAN: What we did is we sat down and we decided that obviously we had to figure out a pattern. One of the greatest helps in developing that pattern was through BATS, the Bomb Arson Tracking System, that the ATF has for fire investigative departments throughout the country, and due to their tireless work, they were able to establish a pattern and what the most likely floors that they would hit on again. Once we started looking at that, we ended up getting with the technical folks at ATF, and they were able to put in cameras that were just unbelievable. Due to the building being basically a concrete shell, everything - putting a camera in, especially with the large amount of people and movement that goes through the building, we had to use some very innovative ways to get in to get the cameras put up.
ROD AMMON: I can imagine that not only running wires would be difficult but even transmission through those walls was a challenge.
ANDREA BUCHANAN: It was the transmission through the walls, getting them put up, and people asking questions as to who we were, and the noise, because some of the walls we had to drill - use large drills to be able to mount the equipment within the available space. A lot of times we told folks we were with Cable Vision to the electric company to whatever you can imagine. Also, we were able to obtain an apartment to which we utilized throughout the investigation, which became our base of operations.
ROD AMMON: You had mentioned that a lot of the folks that were in this building had recently come to this country. Tell me a little bit about the communication and the trust issues and what you had to do related to interviewing and surveillance.
ANDREA BUCHANAN: Well, what we found was a lot of the folks that had just recently arrived to the United States were from countries that there was a large distrust of the government and more so the police. We had to work extremely hard in gaining the trust of the families and then the different demographics that we had to deal with. Some of the people that we interviewed did not allow men to interview the women and vice versa, so we had to be very cognizant of that and know what we were going into prior to interviewing, and unfortunately, in the beginning with these fires, it was more of a nuisance to the people in the building than it was anything of fear, and we really had to put people on notice that if they saw something they needed to say something to us.
ROD AMMON: So quite a challenge, but you overcame.
ANDREA BUCHANAN: Yes, we did.
ROD AMMON: That’s great to hear. So tell me a little bit more about the case. I’m thinking back to something related to what I had read about the story with a refrigerator box.
ANDREA BUCHANAN: My biggest fear was that the fires were going to escalate, as was the ATF’s, and we did so much in person, on-premises surveillance to where we had an apartment that was ours for almost eight months. We had the keys. We went in there. When we would go in there, we would go in there in plain clothes so nobody knew the difference that it was investigators. They just thought it was a new person living on the floor. In fact, we became friends with several people on the floor, thinking we just lived there, and in December, a large refrigerator box sitting outside the trash room in the elevator lobby in the main floor, on the seventh floor, was ignited and caused approximately $50,000 worth of damage, filled the seventh floor full of smoke, and it really put fear into the residents of the building.
ROD AMMON: I can imagine so, and even more support for your earlier concerns, and I’m guessing that led to more support from folks around you?
ANDREA BUCHANAN: Yes. At that point, I was - in the beginning I had tried to solicit dedicated personnel to this case and only this case. At that point, we were going through severe budget cuts, and I was looking at the elimination of pretty much half of the office, of the staff. Police were working with their budgets, and it just wasn’t, at that time, beneficial with the size of the fires to them, cost benefit to give that dedicated staff to me. It quickly changed when the December fire hit.
ROD AMMON: I can imagine. I’m thinking during all this time, it must have been amazing to you to have all this surveillance going on, know all of these people, be interviewing all these people, and still not have leads.
ANDREA BUCHANAN: It was. It became - I will say it became all-consuming for 10 months that this case went. It was all consuming, night, day. It was - any call whatsoever that went to that building where we were having the fires, I was notified, so if you had a kitchen fire, if you had any type of alarm that went there, I was being notified so it was something to which kept me on edge and kept our staff on edge, not knowing when the big one was going to hit, for lack of better words.
ROD AMMON: You mentioned the alarm. There was another issue with the alarm system that was relevant. Could you talk a little bit about that?
ANDREA BUCHANAN: Well, the alarm system was a manual pull system, and very few people would use that system, and if the power went down or if they were doing maintenance, the system would be down. Obviously, as I stated prior, there was no sprinkler system within the building. When we ended up making an arrest, the power was going to go down that night, and this had stressed that individual to the point that we were, and still are, convinced that the fire that we were dreading was going to take place.
ROD AMMON: You had mentioned that you installed cameras with the help of the ATF and some of their technical folks, and I’m wondering could you tell a little bit about what happened with those cameras, how it evolved?
ANDREA BUCHANAN: We had - when - after we had spoke with the analyst from the Bomb Arson Tracking System program, they had given us three floors to which they felt that if the arsonist was going to hit, these were going to be the most probable floors. At that time, we placed cameras. We ended up putting cameras on these floors, and I believe it was the third floor, the fifth floor, and the seventh floor. The seventh floor was where we had our base of operations apartment out of, and the - we ended up having a series of fires. One of the fires - the camera was set out of view, so they set the fire, but the camera didn’t pick up the individual. The subsequent fire, the camera failed to operate. There was a problem within the camera, and it just failed to operate, and then on the third, when we went ahead and put in a new camera with ATF and their technicians, we caught the person on camera.
ROD AMMON: And who was that?
ANDREA BUCHANAN: It was a 70-year-old female that lived on the seventh floor.
ROD AMMON: Pretty surprising.
ANDREA BUCHANAN: Yes. We had - when we had started, we had gone through the Behavioral Analysis Unit in Quantico, and it was believed that it was going to be a male that was between a certain age and a certain age, and this was primarily what we were looking for. Everybody was a suspect, but you kind of started going towards that, and when we found out - when we looked at - reviewed the film that night when we had the fire and we had a good capture on the film, on the camera, every one of our jaws dropped.
ROD AMMON: Wow. So now you have this video. Tell us about confronting her.
ANDREA BUCHANAN: Well, on the night of the fire, we had had the video. We knew who our suspect was. We went down and interviewed her under the guise that we were interviewing everybody on the seventh floor. I had gone along with special - senior special agent, Chad Campanell, had accompanied me to the suspect’s apartment. When we got in there and started to interview her, we explained what we were looking for, did she see anything, and started asking her questions, what she felt should happen to somebody who sets fires, and we were recording the interview the whole time. She was very curious about our iPhones and about cameras, and Agent Campanell explained to her that the iPhones had more computing power in them than the Apollo missions, and she was fascinated by that, and that the cameras that we used were no bigger than the tip of a pen and that we had the person that set the fire, but we explained to her that we had to have the film developed, that it had to go to Quantico so it wouldn’t be until the next day until we were able to get the film developed even though it was video. And the change in her became drastic. She became very thirsty to where she had been very chatty, became very quiet. Her feelings of what should happen to somebody who sets fires changed drastically.
ROD AMMON: I bet.
ANDREA BUCHANAN: To one of compassion versus prosecution, and at that point, we left her. We obtained a search warrant, and we left a - investigators doing complete surveillance on her A) to see if she would fled - flee, set another fire, or unfortunately, something more drastic, and at that point we got a search warrant and obtained warrants for arrest the next day.
ROD AMMON: And she pled.
ANDREA BUCHANAN: She pled guilty to arson. She admitted to dozens of fires that were set in the building and said it was as a way to relieve stress. She had had multiple changes in her life, retirement. She was lonely. The weather had been extremely bad that year, so she wasn’t able to get out, and every time they would do something in the building such as a power outage or cleaning the filters, whatever, that caused the stress and that was her retaliation towards the building was to set fires. Unfortunately, the courts felt that - at that time she had turned 73 years old, that for her to spend any time in jail was not beneficial to her at that age, so she was released and placed on probation, monitored probation.
ROD AMMON: Wow, that’s very surprising, and so how do we know that she can’t do this again?
ANDREA BUCHANAN: We don’t. That’s one of the concerns. We obviously keep close contact with the probation office to see where she’s at, where she’s living. Any fires that we have that match anything towards what her previous fires were, we’re looking strongly into that, but there hasn’t been any fires. We know where she’s at, and she’s evidently thriving well with the help she’s getting and whatnot. It was a letdown, but again, that’s our judicial system, and we go with that as they do.
ROD AMMON: As you see this case now and after you had that footage and you were so blown away, you and your whole team as you say, did you look back and go wow, I should have thought of this. Were there any moments where you sort of looked back, once there was a connection, where you looked back at some of the burns that you had found and made some connection?
ANDREA BUCHANAN: Absolutely. We had - one night we had had a fire where we were investigating a fire, and a fire was set less than 50 feet around the corner from us while we were investigating it, and we had a chance to interview this individual on one of the evenings of a fire, and we had written it up. Agent Campanell had written it up, and we kind of kept our eye on her. We did surveillance on her, but nothing came of it, and in the end when it ended up being her, as we said, our Spidey-sense was right. We did, but I can only say through the course of this investigation never be afraid to ask for help.
ROD AMMON: You mentioned budget cuts, but I mean there had to be things that were great challenges in this case. What would you say those were, and are there things you would want to share with other investigators as to how you got by those challenges?
ANDREA BUCHANAN: I found one of the biggest challenges was for the executives within our department to listen, to understand what I had, to understand that what I was saying, what we were saying, was just. Unfortunately, a lot of times when you’re dealing with a fire department as a whole and when there’s budgets, unfortunately, the nonoperational, as they’re called, components of a department are looked upon as being the first to be cut, and there’s a lot of times a lot of misunderstandings on what we do as fire investigators within a suppression department outside of a police department that handles it or a stand-alone fire marshal’s office.
Sometimes it’s looked upon, well, they’re just small fires. You’re overreacting, but it’s not an overreaction, and you just have to stay resilient and keep on pounding away at it and say there’s something here, there’s something here, and eventually they listen. In our case, we were lucky. It was escalating, and we were able to stop it before it escalated to the worst case possible, but there were ups and downs in this case. When the police department finally did come on board, there was somewhat of a power struggle as to who was going to handle the case, but we stayed resolute, our team, and we were - and while we worked wonderfully with our police department, absolutely wonderful, again, it’s - our area is such a specialized area that a lot of people don’t understand that you can’t handle it like a burglary. You can’t handle it as an auto theft or any other crime. It’s specialized.
ROD AMMON: That’s an excellent point. Dozens and dozens of small fires over several months and you went to every one, and very possible that you saved lives and awesome work. I’m thinking that often investigators are praised for solving cases that involve huge losses or multiple fatalities or with a lot of publicity. You’ve been honored by the folks at the IAAI for solving a case where there was no catastrophic damage and no one was hurt. You closed it before that happened, and I’m wondering if there are any takeaways that you want to share in this case or specifically to serial arson.
ANDREA BUCHANAN: Stay resolute. If you feel that it’s - if it just doesn’t seem right, 95% of the time it’s not right. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be afraid to treat that small fire as if it’s the largest fire you ever worked. Don’t be afraid to do old-fashioned police work and knock on doors and speak to people. Don’t be afraid to say I’m at a brick wall. Where do I go from here? There are going to be these ups and downs in a serial arson case. While mine, by far from what I’ve spoke to folks from across the country who have worked just major, major cases involving millions upon millions of dollars’ worth of damage and/or loss of life, to me I didn’t want that to go here. I knew I had something. I had the belief and the support of my federal partners and my investigators in the office and if I can just say go - run the course.
You’re going to hit brick walls. You’re going to get frustrated. You’re going to laugh. You’re going to cry. You’re going to think you’re going to lose your mind sometimes, and you’re going to be doubted, and be prepared for that, but in the end, the main goal is getting somebody that’s setting fires off the street, getting them to stop, and if you can do that, it’s a win. It’s a win all the way around. Whether they went to jail or not, she’s no longer setting fires, and 10 months of lost sleep, that night that we put her in jail was the best night of sleep I ever had.
ROD AMMON: I bet it was. Andrea, thank you for joining us today and congratulations on this well-deserved and hard-earned honor.
ANDREA BUCHANAN: Thank you.
ROD AMMON: That concludes this podcast. Stay safe, and we’ll see you next time on CFITrainer.Net.