by this author
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
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
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.