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Fire Investigator has Authority to Arrest Arsonists, Others


July 14, 2002
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Fire Investigator has Authority to Arrest Arsonists, Others

The Associated Press

JERSEY CITY, N.J. (AP) - On a recent Wednesday morning, Jersey City Arson Investigator Jack Antonicello was coming off a 32-hour shift, but you never would have known just by looking at him.

At the unit's Summit Avenue headquarters, Antonicello was sharp and composed as he fired off questions at a man who had been brought for questioning after a suspicious fire at a Jersey City acrylics factory earlier that day.

The man, a former employee at the factory where the early-morning fire broke out, spoke Spanish, and his English was choppy. But Antonicello was still able to ease the basic information from him, saving the more difficult questions for later.

He was patient, not irritable like you would expect of someone who had not slept for more than a day.

During the 30-minute interview, the man produced an alibi for the time of the fire. But Antonicello, a firefighter for 17 years and a member of the arson squad for 11, still suspected the fire had been intentionally set, though he was leaning toward discounting the man as a suspect.

Such is the life of a Jersey City arson investigator, a special brand of firefighter who rushes to the scene of a fire to determine if chance or a criminal is to blame. Like their counterparts in Newark and New York City, Jersey City's arson investigators carry guns and handcuffs, wear bullet-proof vests when necessary, and have the authority to arrest people suspected of committing arson - and almost every other crime.

To become a Jersey City arson investigator, firefighters must go through 18 weeks of training at the State Police Academy at Sea Girt, and undergo an additional 90 hours of arson investigation course work, which includes studying fire behavior, fire science, building construction, and investigative techniques.

"Having the experience of both, it brings it to another level," Antonicello said.

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On a recent Wednesday, Antonicello was on duty at the Summit Avenue arson headquarters when he heard the call of a "working fire" on his radio just before 3 a.m. He raced to the scene: an acrylic factory on Culver Avenue near Route 440.

When he got there, he saw firefighters had busted open doors and cut through metal gates to get into the shop, which was closed at the time.

Several hours later, at the scene of the fire, Antonicello pointed out the many physical factors that led him to believe someone, not nature or an electrical short, had started the one-alarm blaze.

There was heavy smoke and it appeared the fire had grown quickly, he said, although the internal sprinklers had minimized the damage.

Also, Antonicello noted the fire had started in the rear of the building, and the security system had not been set off by any intruder. The security company called in the fire after smoke triggered their alarm system.

Looking up, he pointed to a small open window on the roof of the one-story factory. The suspect could have easily climbed onto the roof, jumped down through the window and avoided setting off the alarms, he said. Another sign was that there had actually been several small fires scattered throughout one corner in the rear of the building, Antonicello said.

In an attempt to build clues in the case, Antonicello talked with factory owners and employees to see what information he could gather about who might have had a motive in the crime.

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There are five arson investigators in the Jersey City unit: Antonicello, Bill Statum, Mike Manzo, Lou Legregin and Dannie Thomas. Like other firefighters in the department, each investigator works 24 hours on, 72 hours off, and handles roughly 200 arsons a year - though they investigate nearly 500 fires.

Because arson investigators are also police officers, and a fire could be a crime scene, they do not need a search warrant to examine the premises where a fire has occurred. If they want to re-enter a home or business after they have left, they need a judge to issue a warrant.

For that reason, arson investigators tend to spend several hours at the scene of a fire.

"There is so much to do to determine if a fire is an arson," Statum said. "You are generally some of the first people to get to the scene and the last to leave."

It means taking in the sights, sounds and smells of a scene, as well as canvassing the area for any discarded items or witnesses who may have seen who or what caused the fire.

If there were witnesses, they have to be interviewed, and that should be done right away. Investigators also look at the burn patterns, taking into consideration what material the building was made of, Statum said.

Investigators must file reports with the Hudson County Prosecutor's office and the state Regional Medical Examiner in Newark in cases where the arsons are fatal.

Because fatal arsons are considered homicides, such detailed work as hand-drawn sketches of the fire scene must be presented to the prosecutors, Statum said.

In addition to the prosecutor's office, Manzo said the unit deals extensively with the Jersey City Police Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the State Police.

They administer polygraph tests, have sources wear wires to get confessions, and sometimes travel out of town or beyond state lines to make arrests, Manzo said.

The unit also gets called frequently to the scenes of large fires in other municipalities, such as Secaucus, Bayonne and Union city, to assist authorities there in determining the cause of the blaze.

Antonicello and the other investigators said there are several reasons why people set fires, including revenge or insurance fraud. Other times, a fire is started by kids as a prank.

Particularly common in Jersey City are fires started by vagrants living in vacant buildings, or car fires set for insurance money, Antonicello said.

"The majority of the car fires we get here are arson," he said. "People will come from Newark and other places to dump their cars here and set them on fire."

But no matter what the person's motive is, fires that are intentionally set are all considered serious and are something the investigators pursue aggressively, they said.

"We don't actually have to see you lighting it, but if there's enough evidence we can charge you with the arson," Manzo said.

Later on that same Wednesday, Statum got his call of a "working fire."

He hurried to the scene of a two-alarm fire at a residential building on the corner of Summit and Newkirk avenues, where residents had been reportedly trapped.

Everyone was safely evacuated, but Statum said the fire had been allowed to grow quickly because it was not reported right away. That made the fire appear possibly suspicious.

Outside, rumors were flying that the fire had been intentionally set and Statum, dressed in plainclothes, talked with residents and witnesses.

"That's what makes the job so hard, because you have to sift out what's true from what's not," said Statum, who was leaning toward calling the fire accidental.

Statum said the witness interviews are best done on the spot while the people are there and their memories are vivid.

"You never know if you'll find someone again," he said. "And you want to get it while their memories are fresh."




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