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Shelly Reuben

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Shelly Reuben is the author of Origin and Cause, Spent Matches, and the Edgar-nominated Julian Solo. She is a licensed private detective, and has been investigating fires and arsons in New York for over twenty years. She is a member of the International Association of Fire Arson Investigators and has published articles on fire investigation in Fire Engineering and other forensic magazines. When she is not at home in Brooklyn. she also lectures on fire investigation at various industry conferences. Her website is www.shellyreuben.com.

Who Taught Me Everything I Know?
by Shelly Reuben - Mystery Scene Magazine

One day after I had investigated dozens of fires, I arrived at a private residence in Rockland County. The walls were still standing, and there still remained a front door, which opened and closed, through which we could enter to do an origin and cause investigation for the insurance company that had hired us. Otherwise, the house had pretty much been turned into a charred ruin.
The “us” in question included my husband Charlie King, Pete Catal, a member of Charlie’s surveillance squad back when he was a supervising fire marshal, and me. I don’t know why Pete was along with us on that day, except that sometimes Charlie hired him on a per diem basis, because Pete was so much fun.
Charlie and I had formed Charles G. King Associates two years after he’d left the Fire Department and right after finishing a stint as a special agent in charge of investigating organized crime and corruption for the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation.
Our days of polishing doorknobs and waiting for clients to call were far enough in the past to have become entertaining anecdotes, and we were so busy servicing insurance companies that our fire reports were usually at least two months late. We could have worked faster if I’d stayed at the office to handle the paperwork, but I liked to investigate fires almost as much as Charlie did, and we both knew that the best way for me to learn the business was to play in the char and soot and do the fires myself.
By the time we got to the one in Rockland County, I had already been to enough investigations that my husband trusted me, if not to find the origin and cause of every fire, to know, at least, when I hadn’t found it. Charlie used to say that when he first became a fire marshal, he always knew where the fire had started, and that only after doing it for a few years did he realize that sometimes he didn’t know. So I was early to learn humility from him; I also learned that a good fire investigator isn’t afraid to say, “I don’t know.” Hell, it was our job to plod through structures that had been decimated by flames. It’s only logical that in some instances, evidence of where and how the fire originated was going to have been consumed along with everything else.
The first time I made Charlie proud of me had been sort of a test. We were doing a fire in a bungalow in Toms River, where everyone who had preceded us there – the claims representative, the chief of the fire department, the local police investigator, and the arson squad – were all convinced that our policyholder had set the fire to collect the insurance money.
There are certain “red flags” an investigator looks for that supposedly indicate arson, and our poor homeowner had been bedeviled by just about every one of them: He had removed his pet from the premises prior to the fire; he had removed ample quantities of clothing from his closets; his vehicle was somewhere other than in his driveway; he was an ex-con; he was unemployed; and he had been seen leaving the bungalow within half an hour of when the fire was discovered.
That he had good reasons for all of these circumstances (dog at vet…clothes at dry cleaner…car in shop…employed off-the-books by his brother-in-law, etc.) interested the authorities not in the least. They’d decided that he fit the “profile” of an arsonist and were in the launch position to put cuffs on his wrists (if not bells on his toes). None of them wanted to clutter their minds with the kinds of extraneous details that would be forthcoming from an actual fire investigation.

Continued...

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