ROD AMMON: Welcome to this edition of the IAAI’s CFITrainer.Net podcast. From 2010 through 2014, the Enid, Oklahoma Fire Department caseload included 17 fires that remained under investigation or had an “undetermined” fire cause. An investigation determined that one factor tied all of these fires together: they were all in close proximity to the residence of a man named Martin Painter who had previous arson convictions. But there was no clear evidence that he had set those fires. Then, on May 11, 2014, a fire in a vacant building owned by the City of Enid was determined to be incendiary. Surveillance video identified Mr. Painter in the area around the time of the fire. Through a team approach and sustained effort, Mr. Painter was brought to justice. Their efforts on this case earned Enid Fire Department investigators Ken Helms, Bill Moss, Mike Schatz, and Kevin Winter the 2016 IAAI Fire Investigator of the Year Award. Today, Fire Marshal Ken Helms is with us to discuss this case. Fire Marshal Helms, welcome to the podcast and congratulations on the award.
FIRE MARSHAL HELMS: Well, thank you very much. Good morning.
ROD AMMON: Good morning. So let’s go back in time a little bit and talk about when you first realized that what seemed like unrelated cases were a concentration of fires occurring near a home of one individual? How did you make that connection?
FIRE MARSHAL HELMS: Well, we had—we had a series of fires in a general area of town that we’d kind of been looking at for a while. We were aware of Mr. Painter for several years that he had had a previous arson conviction, and we had kind of been keeping an eye on him and checking on him after some of these fire events, but we didn’t have any direct evidence connecting him to any of the fires and couldn’t place him directly at the scenes of those fires.
ROD AMMON: Tell me about the techniques you used during the investigation to tie these seemingly unrelated fires together.
FIRE MARSHAL HELMS: Well, I use a variety of GIS softwares. Our city uses GIS technology for, of course, water lines and hydrants and things like that, so I was able to access some of that information, and also a mapping program called MARPLOT that’s available from the EPA that we use for hazardous materials responses. And I was able to plot the locations of a number of fires that we’d had over a period of time on that map and then look at them in relation to Mr. Painter’s home address. We identified, I think, 17 fires that were similar in nature, vacant, unsecured structures. The fires occurred during the daytime that were within a one-mile radius of his home address.
ROD AMMON: So I’m guessing you had a real good idea of what was going on, and this might be premature, but let’s talk about why you weren’t able to arrest Mr. Painter before the 424 South Grand Avenue fire.
FIRE MARSHAL HELMS: We didn’t have any direct evidence that he was related to those fires. We did have some witnesses that had seen someone that loosely fit his description in the area prior to the fire, and we did question him after a couple of those fires, but we weren’t able to place him at that location and didn’t have any physical evidence to tie him to that location, so we were unsuccessful in gathering enough evidence to actually arrest him or charge him with anything.
ROD AMMON: And I would guess that that is pretty typical of a lot of cases like this.
FIRE MARSHAL HELMS: It is, and it’s very frustrating. There are many times that it feels like we have a pretty good idea of who’s responsible for a fire, but without any direct evidence, it’s pretty hard to tie them to it. We realize that a lot of times, the physical evidence that ties a particular person to a fire, we may know that the fire was intentionally set. The fire evidence may tell us that, but it doesn’t tell us who’s responsible for it many times, and so then it falls to good interviews and interrogations and asking questions of the right witnesses to gather enough information to tie that to a particular suspect.
ROD AMMON: So how did you proceed with investigating the new cases as they occurred, given that you knew that Mr. Painter might be involved?
FIRE MARSHAL HELMS: Well, we just continued to gather what information we could with each of those fires and interview as many parties as we could. As I mentioned, a lot of these occurred during the daytime hours, but they were vacant, unsecured structures where typically there was good access to them from the back of the house or through an alley where someone wouldn’t be seen very easily. They were also in neighborhoods that there wasn’t a lot of foot traffic around during that particular time of the day. People are gone to work, so there were limited numbers of witnesses, but we just tied together as much information as we could, and where we did have any kind of a statement from someone that described anyone in the area that didn’t belong or whatever, we just tried to document that as carefully as we could, so we had that information to include in the investigations later on.
ROD AMMON: Once again, just a sign of a good investigation, it sometimes takes time.
FIRE MARSHAL HELMS: It’s somewhat tedious from time to time.
ROD AMMON: I can imagine. So can you describe the break in the case for our audience?
FIRE MARSHAL HELMS: Well, the break in the case was the warehouse fire that I mentioned, which was May 11th of 2014. It was the vacant warehouse structure, and the real break for us was the video surveillance. We had two adjacent properties that both had video cameras, one of – both of which actually had an individual camera that faced the property where the fire occurred, and so we were able to spot an individual on those surveillance tapes as he approached the building, walk around the corner of the building. He lingered around the building and walked past the face of the building and then back around to the other corner a couple of times, and then as he disappears around the corner of the building, about 2-1/2 minutes later, the video shows the flames inside the front window of the structure. So once we identified him, then we were able to question him more carefully and determine that it was actually him in the scene.
ROD AMMON: So you certainly had somebody that you knew was an interested audience, but how did you classify the investigation as incendiary, or I should say how did you classify that fire as incendiary?
FIRE MARSHAL HELMS: Well, in examining the fire scene, we determined we had multiple points of origin. We also – we did some testing for ignitable liquids, but because the warehouse had been a machine shop previously, there was a possibility that some ignitable liquids would have been remaining at the scene naturally. So we didn’t necessarily think it was a fire that involved an accelerant of any kind, although when Mr. Painter approached the building, he was carrying a couple of bags that had – appeared to have some liquid jugs in them of some kind, like milk jugs, in plastic bags, and when he walked away from the building, he didn’t have those with him anymore, so we don’t know if he actually used an accelerant or if he just ignited the ordinary combustibles that were on the scene, but we did have multiple points of origin within the structure, which to us is a pretty good indication that it’s an intentionally set fire.
ROD AMMON: I’m sure. I’m wondering at this point did you reach out for assistance from some other folks?
FIRE MARSHAL HELMS: We did. We had attended some training through the Oklahoma chapter of the IAAI, and there’s an ATF agent, Mr. Ashley Stephens, Special Agent Ashley Stephens, that we reached out to him to come and help us kind of review the case. He also participated in some interviews with Mr. Painter with us. We felt like we had something – a pretty strong case building that he had set that particular fire, and we also believed that he may have been involved in a number of these other previous fires, so we didn’t want to mess it up. We wanted to reach out and just have someone look over our shoulder a little bit and help us critique as we went through the process and try to make sure we had a good conviction on Mr. Painter.
ROD AMMON: And your team sounds like they’re very thorough, so I’m thinking that you had created a timeline. Could you talk a little bit about that?
FIRE MARSHAL HELMS: A timeline in relation to this individual fire or the series of fires?
ROD AMMON: Mr. Painter’s movements.
FIRE MARSHAL HELMS: Oh, Mr. Painter’s movements were determined somewhat by the video surveillance. The video from the two different properties shows him as he approaches the target property where the fire occurred. He lingers around. One of them is a thrift store, one of the adjacent properties, and he lingered around it for a while. Then he crosses the street and goes to the vacant structure that had the – where the fire had occurred and lingers around it, walks around the structure once or twice before finally entering the structure and setting the fire. So the timeline is pretty much determined by the timestamps on the videos as far as his activity right around the building.
ROD AMMON: Makes total sense. I guess sometimes it’s just right there. It’s right in front of your face. It doesn’t require a giant chalkboard and Post-Its to…
FIRE MARSHAL HELMS: Not really.
ROD AMMON: With technology.
FIRE MARSHAL HELMS: And as a matter of fact, when we had went to the thrift store to obtain their video or to just find out if they had video that might be useful to us, Mike Schatz, one of my assistants, had gone to do that, and he determined yes, there is something there. He was going to go back with a thumb drive to actually retrieve that later, but he took a screenshot with his cell phone as he was reviewing that, and then as he was leaving their property, he saw someone on the adjacent railroad tracks in the immediate area, and was just kind of curious. Hey, maybe the guy walks here frequently. Maybe he’s seen something, so he approached him to ask if he had ever seen this individual that he had in his screenshot from the video surveillance. And so he approached him and said hey, can I speak with you for a minute? And he said sure. Have you ever seen this guy around? And the guy looks at it and says, well, yeah. That’s me, and this was Martin Painter. This was our suspect. He was there the following day, identified himself for us.
ROD AMMON: That’s amazing.
FIRE MARSHAL HELMS: And Mike Schatz was fairly new to my division at the time, and he wasn’t familiar with Mr. Painter or our history with him up to that point, but when he contacted us and said well, hey, I think I’ve got your suspect and his name is Martin Painter, we all kind of – our jaws dropped a little bit like, oh great, now we finally have something on Mr. Painter.
ROD AMMON: It says something about taking a picture from a surveillance piece and walking up to another person and not knowing it’s them. I mean was it – it just wasn’t that clear I guess.
FIRE MARSHAL HELMS: No, it really wasn’t, and as he saw this man in the area, he was walking away from him, so he had his back to him when he first called out to him and approached him, and he was dressed differently. In the surveillance video, he was wearing shorts and flip-flops and a – like a Hawaiian shirt, and then when he approached him the day after the fire, he was wearing jeans and a jacket and a baseball cap, and although if you looked closely you could tell it was the same guy, it just didn’t occur to Mike that he was looking at the guy that was in the screenshot.
ROD AMMON: Not to mention how often would that happen?
FIRE MARSHAL HELMS: Right. He fully wasn’t expecting it.
ROD AMMON: So tell us about the arrest.
FIRE MARSHAL HELMS: Well, eventually – we interviewed Mr. Painter several times, and eventually he did admit to us that he had gone inside the structure. Initially, he denied having anything to do with it, said it wasn’t him in the video, and then later he finally admitted that it was him in the video and that he did enter the structure, although the video doesn’t show – the opening or the door that was open for him to enter the structure is not seen in the video. It’s at the wrong angle for that, so we never saw him enter. We just saw him walk around the corner in the direction of that open door, but eventually he admitted to us that he had entered the structure, which placed him in the structure at the time of the fire. We obtained a search warrant for his home.
The only real product of that search was that we found a newspaper that was folded to a report about the fire and that it was being investigated as an arson. It was an article that occurred in the – in our local newspaper two or three days after the fire had occurred, but just talked about the fact that it was being investigated as an arson. And that – at that time, the paper was several weeks old, and it was the only newspaper we found in his home at the time, so it just kind of confirmed that he had an interest in the fire or the investigation of the fire, not really direct evidence of his involvement, but some circumstantial evidence anyway.
ROD AMMON: Sure.
FIRE MARSHAL HELMS: But with that and the video surveillance and his admission that he had been in the structure at the time of the fire, we prepared an affidavit of probable cause and submitted it to our DA. Eventually, they filed charges, and we were able to go place him under arrest.
ROD AMMON: So what was the outcome?
FIRE MARSHAL HELMS: Well, the outcome was he pled guilty. Mr. Painter has been in and out of prison for all of his adult life. From researching his background, he’s eventually pled guilty to everything he’s ever been charged with, so he pled guilty to this as well. I believe he’s with the Department of Corrections for the State of Oklahoma for the next eight years I believe it is.
ROD AMMON: Well, it’s good to know he’s away for a while.
FIRE MARSHAL HELMS: Well, and our little rash of fires in that general area has – seems to have ceased, so we’re pretty happy we were able to interrupt his behavior and maybe have a safer community because of it.
ROD AMMON: And that is a beautiful thing, so I’m thinking now about the fact that this year the Fire Investigator of the Year Award went to a group of people, which means I’d like to ask you a little bit about the team approach, and it seems like it was real important in this case. Could you talk about what that concept means at your fire department?
FIRE MARSHAL HELMS: Well, our – we’re very fortunate here in the City of Enid that the Fire Prevention Division gets great support from our fire chief. We have a good relationship with him, and I have the staffing in my division that gives me an opportunity to be fairly aggressive about investigating arsons. A lot of departments – because of the Fire Marshal’s Office, the Fire Prevention Division has so many different responsibilities. It’s hard to focus on investigations with the attention that they really deserve sometimes, but I’m fortunate I have three full-time assistants. We all are certified law enforcement officers.
One of my assistants, Bill Moss, is a former police officer so he brings a little bit more police and investigative experience to the table for us, but we’ve all attended the National Fire Academy. We’ve all taken numerous courses on fire and arson investigations, and we’re – my three assistants have a rotation schedule amongst the three of them for responding to fires after hours. They’re called in and receive overtime pay for that, and if they need any assistance, if it’s a significant enough incident where they need someone else there – maybe while one’s examining a fire scene, one can be interviewing occupants or witnesses and that sort of thing – they call for an additional person to come and help, and many times that’s me. And so we’re able to put the manpower where it needs to be to focus on fire investigations where we can.
ROD AMMON: That’s good to hear. I mean in a lot of cities, it’s very difficult. I hear a lot of stories about one person having to do the job.
FIRE MARSHAL HELMS: That’s very often the case, and it’s been that way here in the past, and once – when I became the fire marshal, we kind of reorganized things a little bit, and I had good support from our chief to rearrange our staffing a little bit, so we have the opportunity to do a better job with it now than we probably ever have in the past. They’ve also been very generous with our training budget. To get everyone trained properly, everyone’s attended our Law Enforcement Academy, as I mentioned, the fire investigation courses at the National Fire Academy as well as some interviews and interrogations. We’re all working towards our CFI. None of us have taken that certification yet, but we’re getting pretty close. We just feel like investigating fires and intervening when we do have an intentionally set fire and trying to prosecute those effectively is a key to a safer community, so we’re fortunate to be able to work towards that.
ROD AMMON: I’m sure the city is grateful for your work, so not to be pushy, but are you guys all doing your CFITrainer modules?
FIRE MARSHAL HELMS: We are. We stay with CFI Trainer pretty heavily. Mike Schatz, my – the newest guy in my division, when he first came in here, he was very aggressive with it and within a pretty short time, he had taken every module that you had offered, and I think he’s still up to date, and I think he’s maintained that, so he’s ahead of the rest of us actually.
ROD AMMON: Well, good for him. We’ve got more content coming out. I think you guys will like it.
FIRE MARSHAL HELMS: Well, we – we’re members of the state chapter and attend a lot of the training conferences that we have here every year. We look at the IAAI and CFI Trainer as great resources for us. We never ever expected that we would be recognized the way we have with the Investigator of the Year Award first from the state chapter and then from the international, but we’re very grateful for that, and we feel like a lot of that was because we asked for help and reached out for assistance to the right person at the right time. Mr. Stephens – Special Agent Stephens with the ATF is on the board of the state chapter.
ROD AMMON: Ah, okay.
FIRE MARSHAL HELMS: I think that’s where our nomination came from originally, so we’re grateful to him for his assistance and for that nomination.
ROD AMMON: So speaking of that, I just have a couple more questions. I mean how was it working with the ATF, setting up the cooperation with the ATF on an investigation?
FIRE MARSHAL HELMS: I was – you know, I’ve always been impressed with the agents that have been teaching many of the classes we’ve attended. They’re usually ATF agents involved at the National Fire Academy. Mr. Stephens has been involved in our state chapter here for a number of years, and they’ve always made it clear when we’ve been to these classes, if you guys need anything, need any assistance, please give us a call. We’re not going to jump in and take over your case. We just want to provide assistance where we can, and when we – this one time when we did, that’s exactly how it happened. They were more than willing to come and help us out. They came very promptly, came over a couple of different times and assisted us with looking through the fire scene itself and interviewing Mr. Painter. They were just a tremendous assistance to us, and we’re very thankful for that.
ROD AMMON: That’s great to hear. I hear that across the country. I guess before we wrap up, anything that you would like to share with the listeners? I mean there’s quite a few people who are fire investigators from around the country that you could have an opportunity to share any other thoughts.
FIRE MARSHAL HELMS: Well, I would just say that the job is very frustrating sometimes. Fire prevention is the kind of thing that your success is usually measured by your – a decrease in your failure rate, you know? If you have fewer fires, fewer unexplained fires, you feel like you’re some good, but it’s really hard on a day-to-day basis to really feel like you’re being effective and that you are – you never know that you prevented a fire. You only know about the ones that you failed to prevent, but in this particular case, we feel like it was pretty rewarding to know that getting Mr. Painter off the street, getting him out of our community, and interrupting his behavior has given us a safer community, so we take a lot of satisfaction from that, and those moments of satisfaction kind of come few and far between where you really get to recognize that, but it’s certainly worth the effort.
ROD AMMON: Well, I appreciate you sharing the story of perseverance at least. So fire marshal, thanks very much for sharing your story with us here at CFI Trainer, and I hope you have a good holiday.
FIRE MARSHAL HELMS: Well, you too. Thank you for inviting me.
ROD AMMON: Thank you, sir.
FIRE MARSHAL HELMS: Bye-bye.
ROD AMMON: To all of you who have assisted us here at CFITrainer.Net with information and interviews on the podcasts, I just wanted to say thank you very much. We’re also listening to what you have to say out there at CFITrainer.Net. We did do a poll and asked people what they thought about the podcasts and what kind of information they were most interested in. One of the number one answers or definitely the number one answer was case studies, so we’re going to do that. This was sort of a case study to start out with, but we normally do, do the Fire Investigator of the Year. We’re also coming up next month with a podcast about the Seaside Heights fire in New Jersey, so we’ll be doing a case study about that fire that happened along The Boardwalk. So besides adding case studies to the CFITrainer.Net podcast, we’re also going to change the format a little bit and start to do some things that folks have also asked for, and that’s to learn a little bit more about what’s going on in the IAAI whether it relates to certifications or designations or training opportunities that are out there.
We’ll also learn a little bit about partnerships and the things that are going on in the national/international level by speaking to Deborah Keeler, the executive director of the IAAI. So next month, we will have new information for you about what’s going on in the IAAI, again, with designations, certifications, training, membership opportunities, partnerships, and that will be held pretty much as a phone call where I’ll just be talking to the different folks who actually do the work. I look forward to that. Thanks to all of you for listening. Stay safe out there. For the IAAI and CFITrainer.Net, I’m Rod Ammon.
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