Hot on the Trail: Arson - WALB.com, South Georgia News, Weather, Sports

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Hot on the Trail: Arson

W. M. Patrick W. M. Patrick
Brian Hargett, GBI Arson Crime Lab Brian Hargett, GBI Arson Crime Lab
GBI Forensic Chemist Gayle Payne GBI Forensic Chemist Gayle Payne

July 21, 2003

Moultrie-- Arson is a common crime. Amazingly, investigators can sift through charred building remnants and figure out if a fire was intentionally set.

So, How do they do it? Sometimes, with common household items.

W. M. Patrick was the last principal at the old Fitzgerald High School. "I knew this kid could not possibly known the extent of the things he had destroyed," said Patrick.

In May, the historic building was set on fire. A teenage boy is to blame. "It's in shambles, goodness..." said Frances McCormick, who worked with Mr. Patrick as the school librarian. "I can't imagine what was going through his head. Why he wanted to do that I don't know," she said.

Students watched the 15-year-old boy set the school on fire. But, what happens when there's no evidence left at the scene? Investigators have to dig a little deeper, the answers might be in the wall, in the furniture or in the carpet. "Any type of debris that's absorbant," said Brian Hargett, of the GBI Arson Crime Lab.

Investigators are collect debris to get concrete evidence. Then it goes to the GBI Crime Lab. "Time is of the essence," says Gayle Payne, a Forensic Chemist at the GBI Crime Lab in Moultrie. "We produce the data that determines ultimatly wether someone is guilty or innocent."

This is how it works. An investigator brings in a paint can or jar with debris inside. Payne uses simple tools like safety pins, string and a charcoal strip. "The charcoal that is placed inside the evidence can will absorb into the strip."

Let's say a fire is started using gasoline and a match. The debris is put in a can with a charcoal strip. The strip will absorb fumes from the debris, but in order to capture the fumes it goes into the oven overnight.

The charcoal strip then goes into a vial to be sent to the GBI crime lab in Columbus to find out what, if anything, was used to start the fire. "I may not be the ultimate witness that puts someone at a scene. I'm really just looking at the debris from the scene," said Brian Hargett.

Columbus scientists turn the charcoal strip into a liquid form by using another machine. The machine doesn't spit out the answer. Scientist have to make a chart of their findings.

Hopefully the pattern will put them on the right track.

 Gasoline is the most common because it is easy to get, but it's extremely explosive. The Crime Lab in Columbus is the only lab in the state that does final fire debris analysis.

But, scientists have to be careful, after all this evidence is going to effect peoples lives. "I'm proud of the investigators they are doing their job and that makes me feel safe." said Frances.

The old Fitzgerald High School will soon be cleared away. "We lost memories, we lost history," said Patrick.

Police were hot on the trail for this arson case. In fact, the boy was arrested before the fire was put out. But, the debris that was saved and sent to the lab will back up investigators when it comes to deciding guilty or not guilty.

The Moultrie and Columbus GBI Crime labs stay busy with arson cases.

posted at 3:45PM by dave.miller@walb.com

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