Clipper fire investigation terminated State's attorney finds no evidence to support arson charge

She says cause electrical

Fire chief 'troubled' by Jessamy decision

he blames juveniles

January 25, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin and Peter Hermann | Kate Shatzkin and Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy decided yesterday there was no evidence to bring criminal charges of arson in the Clipper Industrial Park blaze, ending a controversial investigation into the cause of the fire that killed a city firefighter and destroyed an artists' community.

Mrs. Jessamy made the determination after receiving a Fire Department report yesterday that concluded the Sept. 16 blaze that killed Firefighter Eric D. Schaefer was set. But she said the report did not offer any evidence of a crime that she could take to a grand jury.

"There's nothing to indicate to us that this fire was intentionally set," the state's attorney said. "I don't think we should keep this matter going if we don't believe it was arson."

She said she believes the cause was electrical, but others involved in the investigation disagree. The truth, however, may never be determined.

Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. said last night that he continues to believe the fire was set by the juveniles witnesses saw running from the area shortly before the flames were seen. But he said he was ending his investigation unless new information arises.

The chief said he is "troubled" by the state's attorney's decision. "I don't necessarily agree that the state's attorney's office has the responsibility of determining origin and cause of the fire," he said.

"I don't know that [Mrs. Jessamy] has read the full, complete report," Chief Williams said. He refused last night to release the report to back up his conclusions.

Mr. Schaefer died when a two-story granite wall collapsed, trapping him under tons of rock; 17 other firefighters were injured.

The investigation has been mired in controversy since it began. Police and some fire sources have complained that they were chasing a "ghost arsonist" and that there was no evidence the fire was set. Fire officials have said they were waiting for police to establish a motive and make an arrest, which has not happened.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is angry that disputes between the police and fire departments have eroded public confidence in the investigation. He has demanded a full accounting from fire officials of how the investigation bogged down and has chided the departments over the public discord.

Now, it seems there are more problems, as three scenarios are being embraced. The state's attorney's office believes the fire was caused by an electrical malfunction; a former investigator blames it on a roofer; and the fire chief believes juveniles were responsible.

Mrs. Jessamy said she and Assistant State's Attorney Elizabeth A. Ritter, head of the economic-crimes unit, reached their decision based on their extensive review of the case, which has been taking place since the fire. Mrs. Jessamy said Ms. Ritter went over photographs of the scene, looked at witness statements and worked with the police and fire departments.

"We have had occasion to review everything that's been produced in this investigation," Mrs. Jessamy said. "We've talked to everybody. We've covered every base.

"There is no evidence of an accelerant. There are no other indications this fire was intentionally set, in any form or fashion, or that it was an accidental fire. There is nothing there for us to go on," she said.

While emphasizing that she was not an electrician, Mrs. Jessamy pointed to an insurance investigator's conclusion that the cause was electrical.

Sources close to the case said the investigator possesses physical evidence showing electrical equipment started the fire.

Early Fire Department reports discounted the electrical theory, although one tenant reported hearing a popping sound that he associated with the failure of an electrical transformer.

A Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. spokeswoman said in December that the fire caused a 480-volt transformer box to blow -- not the other way around.

"The assertion that the fire was electrical in nature is simply wrong," Fire Capt. Stephen Fugate, who was removed as lead investigator partway through the case, said yesterday. He continues to believe the fire was accidentally started by a roofer.

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