Tire arsons have dark history

March 6, 2009
By

JOHN RUCH

Burning automobile tires—reportedly the cause of three recent business and house arsons in Jamaica Plain—are an unusual method of arson nationwide, one of the world’s top fire experts told the Gazette. But burning tires were previously used in one of Boston’s most infamous arson cases: the 1982-83 plague of 200 fires set by rogue firefighters and police officers.

“It’s certainly a novel approach to setting fires,” said John DeHaan of California’s Fire-Ex Forensics in a Gazette interview last week. “[Burning tires] may be an intimidation or warning kind of device.”

DeHaan said a criminal extortion racket is a likely explanation for the rash of arsons in JP since 2005, with possible copycat crimes involving the burning tires. The 1982 fires could be a model, he said.

“It certainly sounds like it’s a serial guy or a contract guy,” DeHaan said. “It sure sounds like a protec-tion racket deal.”

In most of the local arsons, tenants and landlords have said they do not of any reason for the fires. Only in two recent condo fires have some residents suggested a link to an internal dispute there.

There have been seven major arson fires in JP in the past four-and-a-half years. That includes three house arsons and one business arson in the past three months.

A male arsonist was reportedly caught on video camera in the act at one house fire last month, as the Ga-zette first revealed, but no arrests have been made. Young men were spotted fleeing the scene of three earlier arsons in 2005-06.

State Rep. Liz Malia and City Councilor John Tobin are considering organizing community meetings about the latest string of arsons.

“It’s really very creepy,” Malia said.

“Just thank God no one has been hurt,” said Tobin. “It’s a miracle. But you can only roll the dice so many times.”

“These [arsonists] can’t be acting with all their brains,” Tobin added. “Whatever vendetta they have…it needs to be solved.”

Maria Joseph, whose Maria’s Hair Fashion on South Street has been torched twice—with yet another suspicious fire at her Hyde Park salon—is vowing to rebuild “one more time” and calling for increased city security. “We need the community more involved about these fires,” she told the Gazette.

Meanwhile, the Boston Fire Department (BFD) told the Gazette that two other recent fires in Mattapan and Roslindale previously suggested as linked to the JP arsons are apparently not connected.

BFD spokesperson Steve MacDonald said those fires remain under investigation. But, he added, the Roslindale blaze appears not to be arson. As for the Mattapan fire, “We didn’t see this as related to the things going on in Jamaica Plain,” he said.

Asked whether BFD is investigating any other possible arsons in JP, MacDonald said, “Not that I’m aware of.” He also declined to comment on the record about tires as a cause of fires.

“Arson is a difficult crime to investigate and prosecute,” is the sobering warning in “Kirk’s Fire Investi-gation,” a standard arson investigators’ manual edited by DeHaan. Among other problems, arson often destroys much of its own evidence. But Boston has one advantage over many other cities: a major-case arson squad that includes Boston Police Department (BPD) and BFD investigators working together, so evidence doesn’t fall be-tween the cracks of separate police and fire department investigations.

Tire terror

Police and firefighter collaboration of a darker kind was behind Boston’s 1982 fire plague. More than 200 fires—including some in JP—were set in an attempt to terrorize the city into hiring more firefighters, as the Boston Globe reported at the time.

At least some of those arsons involved placing tires against buildings and burning them. One example was at Centre and Roxbury streets in Roxbury, set by a Boston Police officer, a Boston Housing Authority Police offi-cer and the head of a South Boston security firm, according to Globe archives. That burning-tire fire was set at a vacant building, but quickly spread to nearby homes.

One West Roxbury firefighter who was later convicted of conspiracy and other charges in the 1982 fires had taunted arson investigators by decorating his car with old tires and gasoline cans, the Globe reported.

DeHaan said it is unlikely that the JP tire fires are directly related to the 1982 case. But, he said, the 1982 case could be a model imitated by today’s arsonists.

Burning tires apparently are not common arson devices. They are not mentioned at all in “Kirk’s Fire Inves-tigation.” But in a review of media reports, the Gazette found some recent examples.

Last November, a man in Florida was arrested on charges of setting fire to a house, a church and a shack—in all cases by setting a gasoline-soaked tire against the building. In the house arson, he allegedly placed the tire against the front door—the same method cited in JP’s two recent house arsons. No motive was cited for the Florida fires, though the suspect reportedly was previously imprisoned for arson in New Jersey.

A 2007 restaurant arson in Ohio involved gas-soaked tires placed throughout the interior. In 1993, an arson-ist used gas-soaked tires to burn bridges in a Connecticut park.

Burning tires have also been cited in terrorism and hate crime arsons. A March 2008 house arson in Germany, apparently part of a string of hate crimes against Turkish residents, used burning tires in the basement.

Al-Qaeda, the terrorist network behind the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, has considered arson fires using car tires as a terror method, according to a 2004 FBI and US Department of Homeland Security bulletin.

Fifteen years ago, gas-filled tires set against interior walls was the reported method in a string of arson attacks on California women’s health clinics that performed abortions.

DeHaan said tire arson reminded him of “necklacing,” a form of execution used in the 1980s by “people’s courts” in South Africa. In those lynchings, gasoline-filled tires were placed around the necks of victims, then set on fire.

Most arsonists simply set property on fire without using any kind of device, according to “Kirk’s Fire In-vestigation.” Using a device usually means the arsonist needs a time delay before the fire starts, or wants to send a message, according to the book.

“They make a hell of a mess when they burn,” DeHaan said of tires, but noted that one placed on the outside of a building is less likely to totally destroy the structure that a device placed inside it—though fire is always unpredictable and dangerous. “It’s the sort of device you’d want to use to put somebody on notice with-out risking a major conflagration,” he said.

JP’s tire fires have been damaging and dangerous, but largely confined to the area of where the tire was set aflame.

Professional arsonists-for-hire usually keep their crimes very simple, using materials found at the scene and not carrying anything with them, according to “Kirk’s.” DeHaan noted that discarded tires are fairly easy to find around a city.

“Kirk’s” cites six basic motives for arson: profit, vandalism, excitement, revenge, concealment of another crime and extremism. The book notes that a single crime can have several motives, and that few criminals are literally textbook in their behavior.

DeHaan said it is likely that JP’s business fires are the work of a criminal gang that demands “protection” money, then burns the business if they do not get it. The other fires, he said, may involve other motives and possible “copycat” crimes.

But JP business owners and landlords have repeatedly told the Gazette that they have no idea why anyone would burn their properties.

Maria’s returns

That includes Maria Joseph and her husband Paul—who is also a Boston Police sergeant—and their landlord, Nick Skourtis.

Maria Joseph told the Gazette that the salon may reopen within a couple of weeks. And Skourtis said he will keep Maria’s as a tenant, despite the repeated blazes and his insurance company dropping him.

“I have to help them so they can stay in business,” Skourtis said. “It’s not her fault. Someone, it looks to me, is after her. Why, I don’t know.”

Asked if she can think of any reason for an arson attack, Maria Joseph said, “Not really. It could be some-one sick in the head. I’ve never had a problem with anybody. I just give a nice service to anybody.”

She also suggested a possible ethnic connection, noting that the owners of the commercial buildings hit with recent arsons are Greek-Americans, and many of the tenants are Latinos. DeHaan previously called that unlikely, noting that Greek-Americans are not a commonly targeted group and that the businesses vary widely.

Maria Joseph said that fire investigators have not given her much information, and expressed unhappiness with their questioning.

“They attack you more than give you information,” she said. “They’re not really nice to us.”

Calling the latest house arsons “very bad,” Maria Joseph said, “I don’t think it’s fair when someone wants to put you out of business, take away your dream. It is a very depressing thing. I’ve been feeling very depressed about it.

“I’m going to try again because the only thing I do in my life is working, working, working,” she said. “I don’t like sitting in my house and I don’t like working for other people.”

Since rebuilding from the 2006 arson, Maria’s Hair Fashion had stickers on its windows claiming that the building was under video surveillance, but that was apparently not true. Cameras will be added this time, Skourtis said.

Maria Joseph complained about city pressure not to install metal security grates in her redesigned store-front, saying that “makes it easy for crazy people” to burn the salon. But in 2006, the salon did have security grates. The arsonist reportedly pried one open and poured gasoline behind it to set the blaze.

Despite the repeated arsons, Skortis said, he has potential tenants interested in adjacent storefronts that were smoked out by the 2006 fire.

But, Malia said, local residents and crime watches have expressed concern to her about the possibility of yet another fire that could spread to nearby houses. She is organizing a meeting to get more information and “keep the pressure” on investigators, she said.

“This is beyond coincidental. This is serious stuff,” Tobin said, adding that the possibility of another arson at the salon worries him. “God forbid she’s in there” if it were to happen, he said.

Reward Offered

Anyone who has any information about the suspect in the recent arson fires in JP is being “strongly urged” to contact the Boston Police Department (BPD) Arson Hotline at 343-3324. People who wish to remain anonymous can call 1-800-494-TIPS. BPD also announced on March 4 that the Massachusetts Property Insurance Underwriters Association is offering up to $5,000 as a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator.

JP Arsons

Feb. 7, 2009: 22 ½ Sigourney St. Condo; burning tire at door. Man reportedly filmed setting fire.

Jan. 28, 2009: 111 School St. House; burning tire at door.

Jan. 6, 2009: Maria’s Hair Fashion, 138A South St. Burning tires.

Dec. 11, 2008: 12 Sigourney St. Condo; reportedly a Molotov cocktail.

Jan. 5, 2008: Maria’s Hair Fashion 2 and apartments in Hyde Park. Suspicious fire.

Aug. 21, 2006: Century 21 Pondside Realty and two other businesses, 619 Centre St. Firebomb. Young man sought as suspect.

March 24, 2006: Maria’s Hair Fashion and four other businesses, 138-142 South St. Gasoline fire. Man seen fleeing with hammer in Lexus.

July 18, 2005: El Oriental de Cuba restaurant and apartments above, 416 Centre St. Firebomb. Young man seen running from scene.

John Ruch