The IAAI and CFITrainer.Net present these podcasts with a focus on issues relating to fire investigation. With expertise from around the world, the International Association of Arson Investigators produces these podcasts to bring more information and electronic media to fire investigators looking for training, education and general information about fire investigation. Topics include recent technologies, issues in the news, training opportunities, changes in laws and standards and any other topic that might be of interest to a fire investigator or industry professional affected by fire. Information is presented using a combination of original stories and interviews with scientists, leaders in fire investigation from the fire service and the law enforcement community.
Rod Ammon: Welcome to the CFITrainer.Net podcast. We hope this podcast finds you well given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Just a quick reminder that you'll find a lot of information on the impact of the virus on fire and EMS services as well as how to protect yourself on the job at iafc.org/covid19. For those of you more on the law enforcement side, you can find information at www.theiacp.org. That's www.theiacp.org.
This podcast and CFITrainer.Net are made possible by funding from a fire prevention and safety grant from the assistance to firefighters grant program, administered by FEMA and the US Department of Homeland Security. Support from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, and voluntary online donations from CFITrainer.Net users and podcast listeners.
Before we get to our feature story today, it's important that we check in with the IAAIs president Barry Grimm about some of the COVID-19 impacts on the IAAIs ITC 2020, the IAAI annual meeting and the elections. Barry, welcome to the podcast.
Barry Grimm: Hey Rod, how are you doing?
Rod Ammon: I'm doing all right. I guess first of all how are you and your family?
Barry Grimm: My kids are good and their kids are good, so that's okay by me.
Rod Ammon: Yeah, I understand. We had a socially distant gathering with our kids over the weekend.
Barry Grimm: Yeah, the birthday parties were at a distance, we had a couple of the grandkids with birthday parties, we had to do them from quite a distance so it's unlike anything else.
Rod Ammon: Yeah, I hear you. Well, I'm glad to hear everybody's doing okay. Can you give us an update on the IAAIs ITC cancellation?
Barry Grimm: As you know, Vegas was one of the last places to go out. But we kept in constant contact with the people who we contracted with there at Planet Hollywood through Caesars, and eventually we came to an agreement that we can't get to you and you're not going to be open. One of those kind of deals. Had an emergency board meeting and it was unanimous that we, at that time to give our membership plenty of time to get their lives in order throughout the entire world and the country, that we would, much to our chagrin and dismay, cancel the event.
Rod Ammon: Yeah, that had to be a painful decision and being around the way I am I saw a lot of work go into this for a long, long time and I know that a lot of people, well, that you represent, are all saddened by it and I'll certainly miss all the energy that happens when we get together. But I feel strong that when we get together it'll be great again. So, what other things do you want to talk about related to, for instance how things are going with IAAIs operations?
Barry Grimm: We've had a good year, we've kept the membership right around that 10,000 mark. We do have some things coming up in line. We have a big board meeting this, actually my final board meeting this Saturday and then that'll be done on Zoom. And the AGM on the 28th will also be done on Zoom. I think through the kindness of Director Watson's company SEA we're getting a platform where we can hold 300 people on Zoom. So that'll be held at 11:00 Eastern Daylight Time via that platform. Director Lawless after notifying all the instructors who certainly were dismayed also there's not to appear at ITC.
We've got some different things going on with them, perhaps to get some of their presentations done virtually so that we can use them and air them perhaps at a later time. And Director Lawless and Bridges have been doing quite a bit of work on a platform to start showing some different subject matter virtually. So that'll all be coming up on the website as will the minutes of the April 18th board meeting as well as the April 28th AGM.
Rod Ammon: All right. People who had already registered for ITC, any news there as far as how refunds will be handled?
Barry Grimm: Yeah, refunds are handled actually pretty rapidly. People have already called and said, "That was quite painless. I got everything sent back". Again, if there are questions you can get ahold of Gloria via email, all of those email addresses are listed on the website. So if you have a headache and you did it through purchase order or there's some glitch with whatever it is that your organization needs, if they paid for it, it's been seamless. I haven't heard a lot of complaints about refunds or funding going back to people right onto their credit card or however they paid.
Rod Ammon: Okay. And I guess the last thing, and important to a lot of people that are on the board or wanting to be there and maybe some other issues that would come up on the ballot, can you talk a little bit about the elections and how they're going to be handled?
Barry Grimm: Yeah, elections will be, the meeting AGM as I said earlier, starts Eastern Daylight Time on the 28th of April which is a Tuesday. Same day it would've been in real time. Voting closes electronically, so it's not a ... we need a big timeout to count paper ballots or CHADs or anything of that nature. So when that ends electronically one hour before the meeting starts at 10 o'clock in the morning, immediate past president Moylan who is in charge of that committee now will have that tally and be ready to give that to the execs, the board and the general membership all at the same time. In almost real time it will start to appear, also with the minutes and the happenings of that AGM on the website.
Rod Ammon: All right. Anything else I'm missing?
Barry Grimm: I don't think you're missing anything brother.
Rod Ammon: Well, that's pretty nice. Thanks for coming on the podcast today with this update. I know this is a tough time for a lot of folks and the news can be discouraging for everyone involved. There's so much energy created around ITC, but I don't know, I have faith in the organization, it's members and they'll weather this and keep getting stronger.
Barry Grimm: Yeah, I'm encouraged that will see everybody on the other side of this and personal protective equipment, I know that many of our members wear lots and lots of hats and in crushing times like this they are called, perhaps from their regular duties, fire investigation, explosions, et cetera, to just go straight back on the line. So, personal protective equipment, safety, you're only responsible for your own safety. So you're certainly in all of the members prayers. Thanks a lot Rod.
Rod Ammon: Thank you Barry. While the IAAI office is physically closed, the staff is working remotely and processing member requests on a weekly basis. Should you have any questions or concerns, the best way to reach them is via email.
Now let's get to our feature this month. Consistently our greatest number of requests are for case studies. They're often difficult to do because of ongoing litigation that can last years. But we agree with you, when we can do them, the combination of a great story and a fascinating fire investigation makes for a better podcast.
Today we have a compelling one for you. Joining us is Wayne Miller. Mr. Miller was the ATF Special Agent Criminal Investigation and Certified Fire Investigator for 25 years. Then practiced privately with the Right Group for another 17 years. While with the ATF in Boston, he investigated a serial arson spree involving 264 fires that resulted in millions of dollars in damage and hundreds of injuries. He's written a book about the case called Burn Boston Burn, the Largest Arson Case in the History of the Country. The book knits together the stories of the nine arsonists involved in the conspiracy, the firefighters who responded, the investigators who cracked the case and the residents of the affected neighborhoods. Wayne, welcome to the podcast.
Wayne Miller: Thank you very much Rod for having me.
Rod Ammon: First of all, how are you and your family doing?
Wayne Miller: We are doing excellent. We're exercising every day and we're staying very safe and we're in a good situation right here.
Rod Ammon: Well I'm very glad to hear that for you and all of your family. And I want to say that we're not only glad you're here, but all of us at the IAAI are grateful for your time. Why don't we just dive into the story?
Wayne Miller: Sure.
Rod Ammon: So the case spans two years and 264 fires. The timeframe was 1982-84. Take us back to that time. What was Boston like?
Wayne Miller: Well, the city of Boston had just come out of the big busing problems that we had, integration of the schools, et cetera. And in the late 70s, so it was a major arson for profit ring that was operating in the city of Boston, and that had gotten cracked by, actually through a private outfit and then the attorney general’s office here. And the city itself was really not in a good place.
It didn't start until the mid 80s to pick up with ... Nathaniel Hall had opened in the mid 70s. Very touristy area now. The neighborhoods, the residential areas, they were in horrible shape with so many abandoned buildings. Quite a bit of crime back in the late 70s, early 80s and this place was just ripe for this story to happen.
Rod Ammon: So how did it all start?
Wayne Miller: Well, there was a proposition, 2 1/2, in Massachusetts. A tax cutting measure. This tax cutting measure was modeled after that proposition 13 that had passed a few years earlier out in California. What it did basically, if you had $100,000 home, it capped the taxes at $2,500. And the city of Boston with a lot of older properties and things like that, it actually caused revenues to drop in the city. And all the cities and towns around Massachusetts did not know where they were going to get the money to pay for your usual suspects, the police, the fire, school teachers.
And so what they did immediately was started laying off people. And I'll just stick with Boston fire right now. Boston fire had 1,700 positions prior to proposition 2 1/2 starting to go into effect. After it went into effect they lost 600 firefighter positions. Some through a rapid attrition program, and the others through layoffs. So they lost 600 out of 1,700 positions. That's like 40% of the people on the job. And 20 fire companies closed down. There were 55 fire companies I think in the city, and 20 of them closed. Again, over 1/3 of the force is just the doors are closed and locked, and the apparatus is just parked inside the firehouses.
Rod Ammon: Seems like a rough way to make cuts. Well, I'm glad you were there and why don't you tell us a little bit about how you got involved in the investigation?
Wayne Miller: Very coincidentally, in March of 1982 ATF found its way into setting up four arson task force cities. LA, Chicago, New York and Boston, because those cities have had major fire problems in the past. So ATF, which was really just starting to get into the fire business, started the task force cities to join with the state and locals to try to figure out how to put a stop to the arson problem.
So the first week of March of 82, our task force was formed in Boston. We actually had an arson squad member from Boston fire, a desk in our office, he drove one of our cars and he was cross designated as a marshal so he could be privy to grand jury information. And this crew of people, the guys in this book, they joined together. They were fire buffs and they're a peculiar group in a sense. There's a lot of ... the Boston Sparks Association, we have Box 52 here. They're all legitimate fire buffs. The Sparks, they like to collect memorabilia, they like to take photographs, they go to fires, et cetera. And they're legitimate groups, but these guys had met while they were chasing fires and they decided we have to do something about this tax cut. We have to teach the mayor of Boston and teach the people, the citizens of Massachusetts, that you can't play with police and fire as pawns.
So they set their first fire just two weeks before our task force formed and throughout the spring of 1982 they ramped up. They were setting four, five, six, even up to seven fires in one night. And I'm talking we had one night with two nine alarm fires, and a six alarm, and a couple of two and three alarm fires. So you can imagine with the tax cuts, the first fire departments, the first responding units sometimes, came from 15 miles outside the city of Boston.
So we were running around from fire to fire. Boston Arson Squad was doing the origin and cause because so many of the early buildings were abandoned two and three story structures. We in Boston, other parts of the country aren't used to the type of buildings that we have here. We have a lot of three deckers. I was told by the firefighters here that I shouldn't be calling them triple deckers, which I do a lot back and forth in the book, I go from three decker to triple decker back and forth. So I don't use the same term all the time. But a triple decker they said, that's a sandwich, it's not a building. They're three family homes originally and then some of them got divided up into six families, that type of thing.
But, three story wooden structures. And a lot of them were just old. They were 60, 80, 100 years old and abandoned. So this crew of eight guys originally, a ninth one eventually joined the conspiracy. But, they consisted of a full-time Boston police officer, two other guys who were Boston housing police officers, one Boston firefighter full time, two other guys who were call firefighters. And all of them at one point wanted to be a firefighter.
Rod Ammon: So you told us about the properties and I was amazed. I had never heard the siding that you talked about. Can you talk about that siding? You called it gas ...
Wayne Miller: Shingles.
Rod Ammon: Gas shingles.
Wayne Miller: Yep. Back in the 1940s, particularly in the Northeast, they were siding the houses with the same type of asphalt shingles that are on many roofs today. But they sided houses with them and it's nothing more than solidified gasoline. It's a petroleum based product. So these guys started using a device. Now I wouldn't have explained to groups back in the early 80s what these devices were because you didn't want to tell laypeople about incendiary devices, but today not only were there court records back in 85, not only is it in the book, but with the internet today it's no secret how to make a simple incendiary device.
So they would walk down the street with a brown paper bag. And nonchalant, just look like they're carrying a lunch. And inside that bag was a plastic Ziploc baggie with Coleman lantern fuel, a little bit of tissue on top and then as they placed the device up against say the outside of one of these houses with the gas shingles, they placed a cigarette inside the matchbook, lace it in through the match heads, and then off they go. They got three to five minutes or so to get away from the scene. And as soon as this ignited onto those gas shingles on a three story wood structure, it would be all the way up to the roof line within minutes.
Rod Ammon: Yeah, it was amazing. I had never ... I think I'd seen that once done on a shed down here and when you started describing it I was like, oh my God on houses. That was very surprising to me that that would have been allowed. I'm not going to give it away but for people, when they get the book, they'll be able to find out about how that ignition device got turbo charged, shall we say.
Wayne Miller: Exactly. They changed it a little bit more a few months into their crime spree, and it did give a boost to the device.
Rod Ammon: So, this term "spark", because I was going to ask you about it. Is that a national term or is that something that just came out of the Northeast?
Wayne Miller: Well, again we do have the Boston Sparks Association. But I know that they were going to have an international meeting I think in Nashville this year, and they had the one last year up in Montreal. So I'm not sure, I think they call themselves Sparks too, but the derogatory version of that is Sparky in a sense because I have a few Spark friends now. Actually the Boston Sparks Association is one of my biggest supporters. They've helped me from the very beginning on this book and had speaking events for me, et cetera. And they're a bunch of great people. But when they get called Sparkies, they don't really like it because there's too many people associated with an arsonist at that point.
Rod Ammon: It's not too much of a change in the terminology to flip to the other side.
Wayne Miller: That's right.
Rod Ammon: And I understand through reading in the book and I think that'll be something else for people to learn when they read about the relationships and how strong they were with the fire department. Without giving too much away, can you tell us what broke the case open?
Wayne Miller: Well, we'd been running straight out right through all of 1982 into the fall. And these guys has progressed from the abandoned buildings to commercial structures. So it really brought ATFs attention. Like a nine alarm on June 3rd, 1982, was a thousand foot long warehouse by 300 feet. And you know how we're supposed to work on fires that affect interstate commerce, so they imported cheap toys from China way back in 1982. So that really got the nationally sponsored team and us involved and they started hurting firefighter after firefighter. That fire had 33 firefighters injured and then October 2nd, 22 firefighters fell through a roof and they got burned, and broken backs and broken legs. And it got more attention, not just from ATF, from everybody. From the national press, they were out there any everything. And we're working this thing on a daily basis.
Well, November 21, 1982. Garrity 2. We call it Garrity 2 because Garrity 1 happened one month earlier. It's a lumber yard on the Southwest corner of Boston. These guys set fire to a lumber yard twice and on November 21 a photographer friend of mine, and he's actually one of my biggest supporters. He's a member of the Boston Sparks, but he was a videographer, a cameraman for WBZ news up here in Boston. So he's getting paid to be out doing a job he loves to do. And he caught these guys on film, just sitting and whooping and hollering and being crazy. And a Boston cop, out of uniform, pulled his gun out and waved it in the air in a wild, maniacal type of event. And that was caught on camera and because of that it helped us identify ... Again, they were only guys who ... We had so many dozens of guys that would race from fire to fire so how do you say that persons a suspect or not.
But the particular group he hung out with, they were a little too loud, and a little too crazy and too often seen at fires. So we knocked on the door of that Boston police officer a couple days later, and I interviewed him with my partner Billy Murphy. While we're talking to him, ten feet away from where we're sitting on his living room sofa was a firebox, the kind that used to be up on pedestals on every other corner and on utility poles and sides of buildings so you could report a fire. Well, those are considered Boston property. So Billy got up before we left and said, "Oh, my dad used to make birdcages out of these, or lamps out of these things". And Billy just tried to get the number off the front, box number 1712. And we had a list of stolen boxes for that year, that was the first one stolen March of 1982 that year.
Rod Ammon: Unbelievable and I think when people read the book, it gets a whole lot deeper, the story about those fireboxes. So we'll let them read the book and learn more about that.
Wayne Miller: Right.
Rod Ammon: So why were they so successful for so long? Especially given that a conspiracy of nine people. It just makes you think that something would have collapsed. I always find that, from what I hear from you guys, is that it's real hard for them to keep secrets.
Wayne Miller: Back in 1982 these guys did a great job of that, and it is an unbelievable thing to think that nine people could hold together a conspiracy for about two years time. But then you didn't have social media, their success couldn't happen today, not just because of somebody slipping on social media, bragging about it. But you have GPS tracking devices, much better than 1982, you got your cell phones, you've got cameras on every other corner now in the city, don't you?
Rod Ammon: Yeah.
Wayne Miller: So they could not have gotten away with it as easily as then. But these guys operated under the cover of darkness all the time. The fires are between say midnight and five a.m., and they're driving black LTDs that look exactly like unmarked police cars and black Chevy sedans, exactly like police cars. These guys almost got caught so often, but got away with it because of that police look that they had and their backgrounds. They couldn't even, once we had suspects and stuff they weren't setting fires every single night, and they started jumping outside the city when we did surveillance's because they knew what we were doing. So they would go up to 30 miles outside the city and set four fires in another city someplace else.
Rod Ammon: The motivation was incredible. You mentioned something about the cars and, well I got to tell you while I was reading the book it made me laugh real hard and I'm going to have you explain what a "tuna fleet" is.
Wayne Miller: The parking lots, there's only about three or four places that these guys parked around Boston and one of them, favorite one was a Howard Johnson's right across the street from Boston Fire Headquarters. And they would all back their cars in and they'd all have the whip antennas, the ones that extend six or eight feet above the vehicle. And if anybody is a fisherman or lives on the coast and you watch all the fishing boats backed in or the private and commercial fisherman, their rods and their equipment always sticks up in the air the same way these antennas did. Just like a tuna fleet.
Rod Ammon: All right, let's shift gears a little bit. Let's talk about what we can learn from this case. I know that's been a big part of your effort as you wrote the book and after you've written the book and the presentations that you do and I'm sure will pick up again after this COVID thing settles down. One thing that came to mind right away was tell us about how important testing your hypothesis was and why it's still so relevant today.
Wayne Miller: Absolutely. Not only from the fire scenes. When we did get a confession in this case, confessions can't stand alone, they need corroboration. So Boston arson was doing all of the initial origin and cause scene examinations. And even if they didn't have a solid, as 921 would say today, how would they make that real determination as to an arson, but they did eliminate these abandoned buildings with no electricity and no heating systems. The only thing you can say is a homeless person could have been cooking or dropped a cigarette. But when you had one after another, after another, the origin was pretty good on a lot of these fires. And most of the time they had said it was an arson based on a lot of factors. So those reports that those guys did really helped a lot.
And then, how about suspect wise? We rolled in suspect after ... We had a list of 18-20 possible suspects, and then we'd go through them and we'd eliminate two and then add two. And that's the whole process too of gathering data and formulating a hypothesis, and then ruling things in and out based on the science and based on the facts, that type of thing. And it becomes more important today because of things like 921 and just the science that we have now put behind all of our fire investigations.
Rod Ammon: You mentioned something in the book that I thought was also interesting relating to the scientific method. You said that one of the lead arsonists, Gregg Bemis, used the scientific method without even knowing it. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Wayne Miller: Sure. Gregg was one of the call firefighters who became actually a police officer, so he had background in both angles. But Gregg actually introduced a device to these guys because he learned about it at a fire academy himself. And what they did at that particular fire where I mention it is they would go inside a lot of these buildings, not just set the outside, and they placed the device in a corner of a room where there was a built-in bookcase. We had a lot of those in the older structures. And I just mentioned if that was out in the middle of the room you get air entrainment from 360 degrees so your flame height might only be a certain height, but now if you push it against a wall you double that flame height and if you push it into the corner, it reaches that ceiling so much faster and you can get to flashover stage so much faster. And Gregg didn't actually know he was doing that but, by placing that device there he learned pretty fast how more rapidly his device grew.
Rod Ammon: He sure did. From the pictures that I saw in the book, wow. Some pretty impressive flames.
Wayne Miller: You should see the videos. We have actual footage from several of their fires from 1982 and 83.
Rod Ammon: Maybe we can learn a little bit later on about how to see those. So, what makes a conspiracy? Just as part of our educational bent here.
Wayne Miller: Right, as one of those training points. And I spend like four pages in the book or so because of laypeople in particular, or even firefighters don't really know that much what conspiracy is. But you have to have two or more people agree to commit a crime. And you and I can talk about doing something, that still doesn't make a conspiracy. You then have to commit what they call "overt acts" such as, in this case building a device or even buying the equipment to build a device. Picking out the buildings, keeping it a secret, agreeing to lie before the grand jury. Anytime two or more people agree to do something and then some act is done in furtherance of that crime, it is now a conspiracy.
Rod Ammon: It's interesting in the book I think one of the things people will enjoy is learning about how they grow. This thing was like contagious. As you said it could be with just two people but it grows from a couple to nine. And that was very surprising to me and the way that those people were brought into the conspiracy also was very interesting.
Wayne Miller: As they went along, and they didn't trust a lot of people, but the full time Boston firefighter wasn't brought in until a couple months into the scheme. And he was a little leery about getting caught at first. He wasn't leery about joining the conspiracy and doing it because it was a strange time in Boston. There were so many guys laid off and the fire department being hurt, and then ultimately obviously people and property was being hurt. Not just by these guys but by any regular fires.
So they would bring somebody in slowly, talk to them and add to their conspiracy that way. But that motive that they had, that motive against proposition 2 1/2, that wasn't recognized for a long, long time. And these guys also grew into being adrenaline addicted junkies to that nightly entertainment that they were committing.
Rod Ammon: Yeah and the story I think really gets interesting when they start getting involved and interested in the media, and I think that's another part that, while I'm seeing develop in the book and I think people will be interested to learn about. What did you learn about corpus delicti and how important it was? And that's something that's still important to day.
Wayne Miller: Exactly. Again, the body of the crime is what that term means in a sense. So, you have to have the crime if you're going to keep working on this case and try to include some of these fires into the conspiracy you have to be able to identify them as an arson versus an accidental fire. And then you have to identify how was it set, in a sense. We did not locate any of those initial devices at all because of what they were made of. We got right down to the point of origin, that June 3rd thousand foot long warehouse, we worked with Dave Icove who everybody in the IAAI knows who he is.
Rod Ammon: Sure.
Wayne Miller: And he came up here to Boston and he assisted us with the origin and cause because we didn't have our own CFIs at that point in time. ATF didn't get involved with certified fire investigator program until 1986. So we got right down to the actual, I'd say within three feet of the origin of that fire, but you think about the device, how fast that could get burned up. And then you start adding hundreds or thousands of gallons of water to an area and blowing things around. There would be nothing left. So trying to identify that, to have the body of the crime, it's so mandatory in these arson cases. How can you charge something unless you know in fact it is an arson?
Rod Ammon: I found it interesting the way you found that burn pattern, and we'll let people read the book about that, but the way that you found that burn pattern at that place, very interesting and how clear it was. And like you said, there was still a challenge trying to find the ignition.
Wayne Miller: You go back again to the very simple origin determination from NFPA 921 type of thing. We did a lot of that stuff without knowing, just saying it. But we used the interview information, we ended up using fire patterns, we ended up thinking about fire dynamics and in that case there's no electrical arc mapping involved. But the readers will know why.
Rod Ammon: You mentioned a couple other names from the IAAI that I know personally and I feel as though I need to say something about them because they were directly related to the book. One was our project manager for CFITrainer for years, Jon Jones, who did a vacant building package, a toolbox, and Bob Corey as well. These two guys seem to have done quite a, or let's say gone to battle with the vacant building issue.
Wayne Miller: Absolutely. Ten years after this arson spree we were up in the city of Lawrence, about 30 miles North of Boston, and Lawrence was having this crazy arson problem. And Bob Corey worked with the state fire marshal's office here and with Lawrence police and fire and ATF, there was a task force formed up there. And if I recall anyplace correctly, I think we made 129 arrests in a year and a half up there. And the arson problem was shut down as part of not only the arrests, but the program which Bob Corey and Jon Jones started, taking care of the abandoned buildings and either securing them or knocking them down.
Rod Ammon: I often laugh. We worked on the project interFIRE VR with Bob Corey and I thought man, if I ever did anything wrong I do not want to end up in the box with Bob Corey. There's a funny story about that. We had actors that came in for interFIRE VR and we told them who they were and their background that they were going to play, but we didn't tell them what they were going to see because we wanted to be able to interview them as witnesses later on in the process.
Rod Ammon: Well, we thought we'd warm up this actor to the whole process. So we put him in a car with Bob Corey and Bob Corey looks over at him and he goes, "All right, so tell me a little bit about yourself". And this guy starts immediately getting all nervous and Bob looks over at him and he goes, "I'm talking about your character". It was like he hardly had to say anything and this guy was sweating from the front seat of the car.
Wayne Miller: He was such a charismatic guy Bob that ... and just his physical presence and everything else. He always did a good job out there.
Rod Ammon: He sure did. Can you talk about the relationship between Chief White and Agent Dowd? Why did that matter?
ATF had just gotten into the arson business, and we needed to work hand in hand with Boston. And as this crime spree, arson spree ramped up we had to work with them on a daily basis. So Chief Jack White was the head of the Boston arson squad and Jack Dowd was the supervisor for the arson group in Boston. Those two guys, they had to meet regularly and come up with decisions as to how we're going to work together. What are we going to do? And you guys from the Boston arson squad, you're used to working fires. We're investigators. We don't know much about fires yet, but yet we know how to investigate. You guys know fires, you don't really know how to investigate that well.
So putting the two of them together and trying to work relationships across the table. I'm not even going to go into congress, law enforcement is enough. Relationships over the years, you have to develop that personal relationship in order to make things work. Trust has to be formed between the different agencies, and it just doesn't come naturally by saying we're going to have trust. You actually have to work at it and you have to prove to people that you can be trusted.
I see that in so much of the training now which I'm really glad to be part of where the discussion is, I think the saying is now "don't exchange business cards for the first time at the scene". Get out there and meet the people in your area and meet the people who are your resources.
Wayne Miller: I agree with that fully. In my 25 years with ATF I very rarely hurt anybody, in a sense, very rarely had disagreements and my big thing was working law enforcement. Whether it was just between in a town having the police and fire work together, I helped try to promote that from way back in the 80s.
Rod Ammon: Well, we appreciate that work. I'm want to shift gears a little bit back to the fire and back to the book for a second. I was amazed and I think a lot of people who get involved in fire investigation, and for me it's just been part of our career. So for 20 years I've been around you guys. I was amazed at the amount of detail related to the fires. How did you come about all that detail?
Wayne Miller: A lot of times the book actually reads like fiction because you got dialogue between the arsonist. When we did make arrests of Bobby Groblewski, the Boston cop, and then Gregg Bemis when he decided to cooperate with us, we spent 2-400 hours with each of those guys separately. Debriefing them, going to the fire scenes no matter what they looked like, even vacant lots and interviewing them about how did this go down. What did you do exactly? Who were you with? And I spent so many hours with these guys and then briefing them for trial, prepping them for trial. I understand how they spoke, I understand everything they told me back in 1984 during this time period, Gregg Bemis when he went to prison in 85, he actually did a 166 page journal. Single space typed, and I have that journal and I have his permission to use it, et cetera.
I have this relationship with Gregg Bemis today, it's very unusual. We'd go out to dinner when we could before this whole virus thing. But we still talk, he calls me up regularly, we talk and we talk about the stories still. We talk about new things that come up through talking to other firefighters now who I hadn't spoken to when I wrote the book, somebody who lived through it. They asked me a certain question. Did they do this particular fire or how did they do this? Something like that, so the information that's in the book and the detail comes from the arsonists themselves. And then my investigative part comes directly from me and the supervisors and other people who worked the cases.
Rod Ammon: I was going to ask you if you had built relationships with these people because I, very often many of us develop friendships with a fraction of the time that you spent learning these people. So I appreciate you sharing that. Something came up, I wrote a note while I was reading the book. Did these guys ever talk about getting tired?
Wayne Miller: Tired of doing what they were doing?
Rod Ammon: Just tired. It sounded like full time job.
Wayne Miller: I did mention that in the book in a couple spaces in a sense. Think about it, you have a shift as a police officer, while you're on your shift you might even be out there perusing the city looking for targets because these guys did while they were working too. Picking targets down, making a list of buildings that they should burn. And then they go out and they spend all night until the wee hours of the morning out there setting fires, and some of these guys, a couple of them were married and a couple of them had girlfriends. How could you fit everything in and not be tired? I don't know how they managed it. I really don't.
Rod Ammon: Yeah, it often amazed me when you would say the light was coming up so they had to can it for the night. It's just an amazing story, an amazing bunch of people and such a beautiful job you did. One thing that surprised me was just the sheer number of images of these fires, and they brought a beautiful visual picture to the immensity of the fires. Do you want to give a shout out to a specific photographer?
Wayne Miller: Well again, Nat Whittemore, that cameraman from WBZ. He did a great job with actual video. But the photos that I have were all contributed by 30 year fire photographer Bill Noonan for Boston fire. Bill has published a couple of his own books and it's all photos and you can see him on Facebook for sure because I see him on Facebook regularly now. And his photos of fires are amazing and not only will you see some in the book but again, if you attended any of my speaking events, you'll see a lot more photos and they're all contributed by the same person, Bill Noonan.
Rod Ammon: Yeah, and they aren't just pictures of fire, they really tell a story. Just the inclusion of the firefighters and the people around and just the whole feeling. When you look at them you really feel like you're there.
Wayne Miller: He really knew how to frame a picture.
Rod Ammon: What else have I missed?
Wayne Miller: Well, I didn't go into much more detail after that firebox that we recovered in a sense. And I don't want to give away the whole story but, right after we got that firebox Groblewski was charged with receiving stolen property. But big deal, he didn't confess. He took a polygraph, he flunked it badly and his attorney said he can't talk to you. And I was flabbergasted that I wasn't going to get another bite at that apple, interview him as to, "Bobby, really what's going on?". And his attorney said nope. So we did not talk to Bobby again from December 1982 until January 1984. I always like to hesitate when I say. It doesn't sound like a long period of time from early December to January, but it was actually 14 months later before we could talk to him.
And during that 1983 period of time, I did develop another source of information, I don't want to give everything away, but he gave me tidbits. Tidbits, only tidbits of information that kept me on the hook just long enough to break another section of this case and then finally we got a confession. But it wasn't until January 1984.
Rod Ammon: It does sound like a long time to me. Knowing how much, the passion that you guys put into this and how much work goes into it that seems like a painful amount of time to wait.
Wayne Miller: Right, it was. Very frustrating long period of time. There's one more thing I do want to mention. The title Burn Boston Burn and then subtitle, The Largest Arson Case in the History of the Country. That should have been in quotations marks to tell you the truth, not just written there with a period at the end. That was a statement made by the US Attorney when the arrest went down. Bill Weld, who actually was running for president earlier this year, he was our governor here eventually. But Bill Weld made that direct quote and at the time it was the largest arson case in the history of the country in terms of number of buildings and the size of a conspiracy, that type of thing.
Now, I've learned from a good friend now Ed Nordskog out of LA, I know the John Orr case intimately now and many other cases where there might be a lot more fires by an individual, not typically by a group. And ours are all structures versus, my case was all structures and not wild land fires which are plenty deadly in and of themselves. I'm not minimizing the wild land fire, but just that I've learned now that there are some people who have set more than 264 fires.
Rod Ammon: That's amazing in itself, and nice of you to clarify because I'm sure there are other people out there who are doing a lot of work on some real big cases. One thing I forgot to mention and you skirted over it a little bit, but I think it's important to talk about, especially related to investigators and their leadership today. And that's the importance of relationships with politicians. What would you say about that and what would your advice be to departments and how they could stay involved?
Wayne Miller: The fire industry has always had good representation in congress, and I'm sure the police do also. But you have to stay with your local politicians also. In any small town, who gets cut a lot of times and when it comes up for budgets for the fire department, police department, and particularly fire departments, people see their firefighters as oh, they sit around, they don't run, they don't do too much. They clean fire trucks and stuff like that and they come and look at your fire alarm and your protection systems. But a lot of towns don't have the number of fires they used to have. But, let me tell you, when you have one or two structure fires in a year, each time you're going out that door you're risking your lives for saving somebody's property and saving somebody's life.
So you got to have that relationship and you got to build that relationship throughout the year. Not just when you need a budget, that type of thing. And explain to them what you really do for a job and how that job is very risky. Just look at 9/11 in New York City, they respect their police and fire, they know. But how fast do you forget things like that? Look at what they're doing out in the street today protecting us all through this virus thing. And again, try not to forget that in the future, all politicians, and stress the amount of hours and the amount of sicknesses and the amount of cancer cases and things like that.
Rod Ammon: And document.
Wayne Miller: Yep, document and let them know it, for sure.
Rod Ammon: It's a good time to shout out CFSI, or the Congressional Fire Services Institute. I know those guys well and I think they've been a wonderful voice for the fire service industry.
Wayne Miller: Right. One thing I'd like to let the readers know is I am contributing 50% of any profits from the book, which just became profitable. The book came out in August and it became profitable around February 1st.
Rod Ammon: Congratulations.
Wayne Miller: Thank you. And 50% of all profits are going to burn victim charities, and one in particular I've donated three times already. I've given to the IAFF relief fund, Cape Cod Massachusetts has a cancer relief fund, I've contributed to that. And a funny thing, at my speaking events the books sell for $19 for softcover and $29 for hardcover. And at the speaking events I put this little card out there that says "please consider rounding up one dollar for charity". And I'm telling you after a couple events I had $500 to give to a charity.
Rod Ammon: That's beautiful. Good work for you and thanks again for what you do. I know we talked a lot about the book, but it's so jam packed with detail and story, I don't feel like we did it any disservice or gave too much away. It's a fascinating book. I hope our listeners will check it out. It's not just about the investigation, it's about the city, the people and how these fires affected everyone involved. It's always important to never lose the bigger picture and I think you just spoke about that and Wayne I appreciate so much your time with us today.
Wayne Miller: Rod, thank you for having me. If anybody wants to look up my website burnbostonburn, all one word, dot com. And same for Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter, it's all burnbostonburn, not Wayne Miller. And you can get the book a lot of different play-, I was just shocked to see it on Target and Walmart recently.
Rod Ammon: Excellent. I hope you and your family stay safe and once again, for everybody at the IAAI, thank you very much for your time Wayne.
Wayne Miller: Thank you so much for having me, I enjoyed being here.
Rod Ammon: Thanks for joining us today on the podcast. Stay safe. We'll see you next time. For the IAAI and CFITrainer.Net, I'm Rod Ammon.
Burn Boston Burn
This program provides a primer on accreditation, certification, and certificates for fire investigation training.
A fire occurred on the night of Feb. 20, 2003, in The Station nightclub at 211 Cowesett Avenue, West Warwick, Rhode Island.
Arc Mapping, or Arc Fault Circuit Analysis, uses the electrical system to help reconstruct a scene, providing investigators with a means of determining the area of a fire’s origin.
This module introduces basic electrical concepts, including: terminology, atomic theory and electricity, Ohm’s Law, Joule’s Law, AC and DC power.
A fire occurred on the evening of June 18, 2007, in the Sofa Super Store in Charleston, SC that resulted in the deaths of nine fire fighters.
This module looks at the many ways fire investigators enter and grow in the profession through academia, the fire service, law enforcement, insurance, and engineering.
This module will present a description of the IAAI organization.
This module takes a closer look at four of the most commonly-reported accidental fire causes according to "NFPA Fact Sheet.
This program brings three highly experienced fire investigators and an attorney with experience as a prosecutor and civil litigator together for a round table discussion.
One of the legal proceedings that may require the fire investigator to testify is a deposition. Depositions are often related to civil proceedings, but more and more jurisdictions are using them in criminal cases.
Deposing attorneys employ a variety of tactics to learn about the expert witness giving testimony, to try to unsettle that witness to see how he/she handles such pressure, and to probe for weaknesses to exploit.
The program discusses the basics of digital photography for fire investigators as well as software and editing procedures for digital images intended as evidence.
This self-paced program is an introduction to discovery in civil proceedings such as fire loss claims and product defect lawsuits.
This self-paced program is an introduction to discovery in criminal proceedings.
This module covers the foundation of DNA evidence: defining, recognizing, collecting, and testing.
This program provides a practical overview of how to perform the baseline documentation tasks that occur at every scene.
This module will discuss the techniques and strategies for conducting a proper science-based fire scene investigation and effectively presenting an investigator’s findings in court as an expert witness.
This program explains the basic principles of how electric and hybrid vehicles are designed and work, including major systems and typical components.
This module presents critical electrical safety practices that every fire investigator should implement at every scene, every time.
In this program, we will look at emerging technologies that fire investigators are integrating into their daily investigative work with great success.
This self-paced program examines the fire investigator's ethical duties beyond the fire scene.
As social media has emerged as a powerful force in interpersonal communications, fire investigators are being confronted with new questions...
Should you work for a private lab as a consultant if you are on an Arson Task Force? How about accepting discounts from the local hardware store as a “thanks” for a job well done on a fire they had last year?
This module takes investigators into the forensic laboratory and shows them what happens to the different types of fire scene evidence that are typically submitted for testing.
This module teaches the foundational knowledge of explosion dynamics, which is a necessary precursor to investigating an explosion scene.
This module addresses the foundations of fire chemistry and places it within the context of fire scene investigations.
The program is designed to introduce a new Palm/Pocket PC application called CFI Calculator to users and provide examples of how it can be used by fire investigators in the field.
This module examines these concepts to help all professionals tasked with determining fire origin and cause better understand fire flow dynamics so they can apply that knowledge to both to fire investigation and to fire attack.
This module provides a road map for fire officers to integrate and navigate their fire investigation duty with all their other responsibilities and describes where to obtain specific training in fire investigation.
The evaluation of hazards and the assessment of the relative risks associated with the investigation of fires and explosions are critical factors in the management of any investigation.
This module will describe the most commonly encountered fire protection systems.
This module presents best practices in preparing for and conducting the informational interview with witnesses in the fire investigation case.
This module provides instruction on the fundamentals of residential building construction with an eye toward how building construction affects fire development.
This module provides introductory information on the Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) standard – 29 CFR 1910.120.
This module teaches first responders, including fire, police and EMS, how to make critical observations.
The program examines the importance of assessing the impact of ventilation on a fire.
This program discusses how to access insurance information, understand insurance documents, ask key questions of witnesses, and apply the information learned.
This module offers a basic introduction about how some selected major appliances operate.
This program introduces the fire investigator to the issues related to the collection, handling and use of evidence related to a fire investigation.
This program takes you inside the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) archives of some of the most interesting and instructive test burns and fire model simulations they have ever conducted.
The program provides foundational background on the scope of the youth-set fire problem, the importance of rigorous fire investigation in addressing this problem, and the role of key agencies in the response to a youth-set fire.
This module provides a thorough understanding of the ways an investigation changes when a fire-related death occurs.
This self-paced program will help you understand what to expect at a fire where an LODD has occurred, what your role is, how to interact with others, and how to handle special circumstances at the scene.
This program will introduce the fire investigator to the basic methodologies use to investigate vehicle fires.
This module presents the role natural gas can play in fire ignition, fuel load, and spread; the elements of investigating a fire in a residence where natural gas is present; and the potential role the gas utility or the municipality can play an investigation.
This self-paced program covers fundamental legal aspects of investigating youth-set fires, including the juvenile justice system, legalities of interviews and interrogations, arson statutes, search and seizure, and confidentiality.
This program discusses the latest developments in expert testimony under the Daubert standard, including the MagneTek case recently decided in the United States Circuit Court of Appeals.
This module focuses on how to manage investigations that have “complicating” factors.
This module uses the Motive, Means, and Opportunity case study to demonstrate how responsibility is determined in an arson case.
This program covers the general anatomy of a motor vehicle and a description of typical components of the engine, electrical, ignition, and fuel systems.
This self-paced program is the second part of a two-part basic introduction to motor vehicle systems. This program describes the function and major components of the transmission, exhaust, brake, and accessory systems.
This module educates the investigator about NFPA 1033’s importance, its requirements, and how those requirements impact the fire investigator’s professional development.
This module reviews the major changes included in the documents including the use of color photos in NFPA 921 and additional material that supports the expanded required knowledge list in NFPA 1033 Section 1.3.7.
The program illustrates for the fire investigator, how non-traditional fire scene evidence can be helpful during an investigation.
This module introduces the postflashover topic, describes ventilation-controlled fire flow, illustrates how the damage left by a postflashover can be significantly different than if that fire was extinguished preflashover.
This module demonstrates the investigative potential of information stored on electronic devices.
This module explains the relationship between NFPA 1033 and NFPA 921
This module lays the groundwork for understanding marine fires by covering four basic concepts that the investigator must understand before investigating a marine fire.
In this module, you will learn more about how cancer develops, what occupational exposure risks to carcinogens exist at fire scenes, and how to better protect yourself against those exposures.
The use of the process of elimination in the determination of a fire cause is a topic that has generated significant discussion and controversy in the fire investigation profession.
This module teaches the basics of the electrical power generation, distribution, and transmission system.
This module presents the basics of natural gas and its uses and system components in a residence.
The basics of the scientific method are deceptively simple: observe, hypothesize, test, and conclude.
This module explains the principles of search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment, as contained in the amendment and according to subsequent case law, and applies them to typical fire scene scenarios.
This module addresses the foundations of thermometry, including the definition of temperature, the scales used to measure temperature and much more.
This program presents the results of flame experiments conducted with a candle.
This self-paced program explains to non-investigators the role of the fire investigator, what the fire investigator does, how the fire investigator is trained, what qualifications the fire investigator must meet.
This module will untangle the meanings of "undetermined," straighten out how to use the term correctly, talk about how not to use it, and describe how to properly report fires where "undetermined" is the cause or classification.
This module will advise fire investigators on how to approach the fact-finding procedures necessary and validate a hypothesis.
This module provides an overview on how structures can become vacant and eventually abandoned.
This self-paced program provides a basic framework for structuring the management of fire cases and fire investigators.
This module illustrates how wildland fires spread, explains how to interpret burn patterns unique to these types of fires.
This module presents the key elements of the initial origin and cause report and methods of clearly presenting findings in a professional manner.