David Walker was shot and killed Sept. 9 — and four days later, someone set his house on fire. The arsonist remains at large, officials said this week.
Less than a year earlier, the home next door to Walker's was damaged in another arson fire, officials said. Two men were shot and killed while outside working on that house the same day that Walker, 68, was found dead inside his car across town. Authorities said they have not confirmed any connections between those killings and the house fires, though investigations continue into the circumstances surrounding the incidents — all mysteriously linked to the 2500 block of Thomas H. Delpit Drive.
These circumstances may pose a particularly tangled web, but arson often proves an elusive crime. Investigators say that motives vary widely when determined, and in general, the majority of physical evidence burns to ash before probes can begin. Both those factors make arson cases unusually difficult to solve and prosecute, Baton Rouge Fire Department spokesman Mark Miles said.
Since the beginning of 2016, only about 17 percent of arsons across Baton Rouge have ended in arrests, according to BRFD records. For those cases, fire investigators often rely on video surveillance or witness accounts. The remaining roughly 83 percent of arson cases during that time remain unsolved.
Miles said that although arrest numbers may appear low, clearance rates for arson in Baton Rouge typically reflect national averages, which have hovered around 20 percent over the past several years, according to FBI crime statistics. The clearance rate in Baton Rouge is higher, so far, this year than last: about 22 percent compared with 12 percent.
Curt Monte, another Fire Department spokesman, didn’t attribute the increase this year to anything specific but said investigators are working hard to solve cases.
Arson numbers are also up this year. The city has seen more arsons since January than throughout 2016, but 2017 numbers are similar to previous years — annual arson tallies have fluctuated between 187 and 103 within the past five years, according to FBI crime statistics.
Between January and October, investigators identified 151 arsons within city limits, compared with 129 during 2016, according to Fire Department records. Officials said they have no idea why those numbers have risen.
A variety of motives
Monte emphasized that people commit arson for many different reasons — from insurance fraud to domestic problems to fetishes — and pinpointing trends is difficult.
Arrest reports over the past year show that when arson cases are solved, they are frequently in conjunction with other crimes. Cases that end in arrest often take place in public and are either caught on video surveillance or described by witnesses.
For example, Galen Carber walked into a Walmart last November and used a cigarette lighter to ignite merchandise within the cosmetics aisle before stealing a pair of earrings and a bottle of face wash, according to his arrest report. Security cameras recorded the incident and Carber now faces one aggravated arson charge in court.
“Galen is a good young man who has had his difficulties," his attorney, Chris Alexander, said in a statement. "He had a tough family life but is working every day to improve himself and be the best he can be.”
In April, Marcus Green used gasoline and a cigarette lighter to ignite the car in which two of his relatives were sleeping, according to his arrest report. One of the people in the car told fire investigators he woke up from the noise of gasoline splashing onto the vehicle and tried unsuccessfully to stop Green, who refused to stop and instead yelled: “Yeah, you better get the f*** up out that b****.”
Green then drove away from the scene, investigators said. His family members told police he was possibly on drugs during the incident. He was arrested and later charged with aggravated arson; his case is pending.
Edward Allen earlier this year was booked on first-degree murder in connection with the death of his girlfriend who died in a fire at her family's home May 26.
Earlier that day, Allen threatened to burn her house down, witnesses told investigators. He left the home about 2:30 a.m. after the homeowner called police on him but returned about 4 a.m., according to his arrest report. Crews responded to a fire less than 30 minutes later. Allen’s girlfriend had been inside and the fire had been set inside the living room, investigators concluded.
So far Allen has been charged only with false communication of a planned arson. But East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said Allen could eventually face additional charges.
Officials said the increase in arsons this year seems largely random and not connected to the August 2016 floods, which left many houses uninhabitable. Miles said people sometimes assume flooded houses frequently become targets for arson, but that doesn't appear to be the case.
Many arsons do occur in vacant homes, but those cases often aren't solved, according to Fire Department records. Monte said that could possibly be because they generally lack witnesses. Arsons in vacant buildings sometimes occur because the owners are looking to collect insurance money or because people attempt to cover up other illegal activity that had taken place there, he said.
The investigative process
The first step is determining where the fire started is by interviewing witnesses and examining burn patterns and other evidence, said Sean Trimber, a special agent certified fire investigator for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, New Orleans Field Division. Then investigators look for possible causes, sifting through debris for clues.
“If you’re lucky, you might find something in that area of origin that lets you know how the fire started,” such as traces of an accelerant or remains of an incendiary device, Trimber said. Lab tests can detect the presence of chemicals present in gasoline and other accelerants.
Federal investigators typically get involved in cases that could lead to federal charges, but they also assist state and local investigators when necessary, Trimber said. Within Baton Rouge city limits, the state fire marshal also sometimes assists with investigations.
The St. George Fire Department, which covers the southern part of East Baton Rouge Parish — another densely populated area — has not seen an increase in arsons this year, said Darian Williams, chief of fire prevention. But arson numbers generally remain low for that area, only a few each year.
Within Baton Rouge city limits, the city fire department has five investigators who respond when necessary. Monte said they all start out as firefighters and then undergo additional training to become investigators. Last year, they responded to 273 scenes and found instances of arson at 129 of those fires.
Making that determination is one thing, but arresting someone on arson charges is another, Trimber said.
“It’s a difficult crime to prove. It truly is," he said. "Unless you have that slam dunk of video proof, forensics and a confession — that trifecta that juries are looking for."
Though conclusive physical evidence is always preferable, investigators are allowed to make limited inferences, Trimber said. “At the end of the day, where the fire started and how the fire started is an expert opinion. But you have to be able to articulate your inferences in court.”
He said investigators complete extensive training before being able to make those decisions.
Low clearance rates both nationally and across Louisiana raise concerns, but nonetheless are preferable to the alternative, Trimber said.
“Obviously, it’s an issue and concerns me, but at the end of the day, we’re more interested in getting it right than potentially putting the wrong person in jail.”