Westerville News & Public Opinion

Arson investigation

Police say fires at four houses were deliberately set

By

After identifying an unusual number of fires in a short timeframe, the Westerville Division of Police is officially investigating the cases as arson.

Det. Lt. Ron McMillin said police have linked recent fires at homes on Allview Road, Cornell Court, Cherrington Road and West Broadway Avenue and believe they may have been the work of the same individual.

"We don't have very many fires in Westerville," McMillin said. "To have so many close together in timeframe is really suspicious.

"Then we look at how the fires were set, where they were set and the location to the building, and we were able to determine pretty quickly that these weren't anything other than a human act."

The Westerville Division of Fire made the assessment that a human was involved in the fires, and Chief Fire Marshal Paris Smith-Higbie said it was as simple as following a set of steps.

"There's basically a flowchart," Smith-Higbie said. "We work off of a hypothesis and through a process of elimination of things that could have started a fire, we end up with our theory."

After putting the fires out, the fire department ruled out electrical, chemical or mechanical causes, he said.

"Once we determine a human act, we either determine that it's a human act by accident or on purpose," he said. "So that's, in a nutshell, how you determine whether something was involving a human error or on purpose, or whether it was just something like a lightning strike or an appliance that malfunctioned."

Smith-Higbie said the Ohio Fire Marshal's office is aware of the situation, but called its involvement "limited," until Westerville officials determine they need more assistance. At the state level, the fire marshal has access to detection dogs, labs and more manpower than Westerville does.

In the meantime, Westerville police are still following leads and have begun to identify persons of interest, though McMillin said they have not identified any official suspects.

"There are people that we think are more likely to be involved than others," he said. "But really, they're probably all people of interest right now. ... I don't want to go into too much detail, because we're at a point where I don't want to give up anything that might compromise our investigation."

The uniting factor among all four incidents was that whoever started the fires packed some sort of flammable material against a porch or deck and attempted to start a larger fire.

In one case it was a railroad tie, and in another it was simply a pile of hay obtained at the property. McMillin said police are looking into other "undetermined" fires around the area to see if any more may be connected.

According to police reports, three of the fires were started late at night, all between 11:30 p.m. and 2 a.m. March 17, 18 and 22, and all began when the homes were occupied.

Officials have determined that the fourth and most minor blaze could have been set within a two-week period between March 4-18 and was small enough to be missed for some time.

Police are not releasing specifics about where the materials were obtained or the damage to property, though they confirmed that in the cases of the railroad tie and hay, materials were obtained from the sites.

Before a suspect is apprehended, McMillin said police are asking neighbors to look out for one another and to call the Westerville Division of Police at 614-882-7444 about any suspicious activity.

"We're just asking people to be more aware of their surroundings," he said. "If they see people in their neighbors' yards that they don't recognize, call the police.

"Just be aware and pay attention to their surroundings and notify the police of anything suspicious."

Residents at two of the locations where the fires occurred declined to comment, and others did not respond to a request.

Comments