Law enforcement officers with the N.C. Forest Service were named the 2014 Investigative Team of the Year by the North Carolina Chapter of the International Association of Arson Investigators at the N.C./S.C. Arson Conference in Myrtle Beach. The event was attended by more than 360 fire investigators, fire marshals and detectives from both states.
The honor was bestowed upon NCFS Law Enforcement Supervisor Amery Wells, Law Enforcement Rockingham District Ranger Sam Niemyer and other members of the team for an investigation that took place between July 2011 and May 2012. During that period, 78 fires were intentionally set in Scotland, Richmond and Hoke counties. The team used a combination of strategies to narrow down the case to a single suspect who would later be charged and convicted on 50 felony counts of setting fires and malicious use of incendiary devices.
Robert Smith, NCFS chief of law enforcement, said the investigation was challenging and unique due to the geographic area that covered portions of three counties, eight fire districts and two prosecutorial districts, among other factors. He pointed out that investigating a series of fires, even if a few are in the same general area, is complicated.
“Effective communications between investigative team members and numerous resources from different counties and fire districts was critical to the success of this investigation,” Smith said.
Smith said developing the working relationships and overall trust between all of those parties was essential. He credited the team with doing an outstanding job to develop and nurture longstanding relationships that transcended jurisdictional lines and using their individual strengths and skills to work extremely well together.
“They used a combination of good old-fashioned investigative skills mixed with technology such as tracking devices and GIS mapping, to put together a thorough case,” he said.
The factor of time and distance repeatedly challenged investigators to develop new strategies for static and mobile surveillance that covered a large geographic area over a lengthy time span. It was, however, a challenge to get the legal authority to use the tracking device. In January 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in U.S. vs. Jones that required a search warrant for tracking devices. In May 2012, judges were still new to this case, as was the investigative team, making the warrant process more time-consuming than normal. The team collaborated on proper verbiage and content prior to discussing the case with the signing judge to be sure everything was in proper order and to the letter of the law.
The team also had the daunting task of collecting and analyzing a large volume of data, evidence, leads, witness interviews, photographs and other information, which quickly became a huge undertaking to sort and track. There was also the ongoing process of analyzing the data to formulate hypotheses, which was even more challenging and often frustrating for the team.
The suspect turned out to be a former law enforcement officer. As such, he was familiar with investigative tactics, interview techniques and surveillance techniques. It was later determined that he was also using a scanner to monitor radio traffic of emergency response personnel.
“Considering all of the challenges, the investigative team maintained a unified and determined effort to bring successful closure to one of the most complex wildland fire investigation cases in North Carolina history,” Smith said.
The team invested more than 1,000 man hours of time and resources and wrote in excess of 1,000 pages of discovery evidence. Their work led to 52 felony charges for intentionally setting fires and use of malicious incendiary devices, and a $1 million dollar bond set for the suspect, the largest in North Carolina for a wildland fire case. The suspect pleaded guilty in November 2013 to 50 of the 52 felony charges and was ordered to pay more than $15,000 in restitution. He was sentenced to 60 months of supervised probation to begin in May 2016 at the end of an unrelated federal prison sentence.
“I’m very proud to have played just a small role in this investigation. But even more so, to have witnessed the amount of dedication, professionalism and teamwork these guys demonstrated throughout this entire investigation,” Smith said. “They are all very deserving of this award for 2014.”