Investigators of fatal fire still disagree Police reject finding by Fire Department that blaze was set

5 people died in Jan.

If arson led to deaths, case could result in charges of murder

June 07, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

An intense probe into what caused a January fire that killed five people is nearing a close, but city fire and police investigators have yet to agree on where and how the blaze started and whether the deaths can be classified as homicides.

The Baltimore Fire Department has declared the Jan. 14 fire in Northwest Baltimore incendiary, meaning it believes it was set. The state medical examiner's office has ruled the deaths homicides.

The morning fire burned out a small, one-story house in the 5200 block of Norwood Ave. and killed Juanita Roy, 20, Francine Roy, 37, and her three children, Antonie, 4, Anthony, 3, and Antonia, 23 months. The family had jury-rigged an electric line to receive electricity.

Six months later, the fire has yet to be declared an arson, which would mean it was set with the intent of burning the house down. Such a designation would classify the case a crime and could lead to murder charges.

"As of now, we have not found any evidence to support the elements of an arson," said Col. John E. Gavrilis, chief of the Police Department's Criminal Investigation Bureau.

"What we look for is deliberate acts, like an accelerant that could have been used," Gavrilis said. "We also look at areas in which the fire could have started accidentally."

But Fire Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, the president of the fire officers union and a former fire investigator, said arson is the obvious cause, and he criticized police for overstepping their expertise by second-guessing fire officials on the cause and origin of a blaze.

"We determined that this fire was set by human hands," Fugate said. "The Police Department needs to label it arson, and then it becomes a crime. And apparently they have no intention of doing that."

Fugate said that "every so often, someone from police arson decides that they know better than our investigators and simply refuse to pursue a case."

Relative suspects arson

Francine Roy's daughter, Antoinette Manago, has believed the fire was arson from the beginning, though she has not heard from investigators in a month. But she said she expected the probe to take at least six months.

"We're at the same point we were at before," she said. "Police are still questioning people. If they do have a lead, I don't know anything about it yet. The surviving victims are always the last ones to know."

A meeting has been scheduled for June 24 involving fire and police investigators, as well as top commanders from each department, including Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. and Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier.

Gavrilis said all aspects of the fire will be discussed at the meeting, with the hope that a decision can be made on whether to proceed with the investigation. The colonel said any disagreements are merely the result of professionals sorting through complicated and often conflicting piles of evidence.

When asked about the apparent disagreement, Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a Fire Department spokesman, said: "I can't address that issue because it is not an issue. The investigation is going as it should. We are all working toward a mutual end."

The dispute is similar to what happened after the Clipper Mill fire in September 1995 that claimed the life of firefighter Eric D. Schaefer and injured 17 others when a wall collapsed.

Fire investigators submitted reports complete with names of children seen near the building but were rebuked by police who said their probe was shoddy.

The case was closed without any arrests, leaving unanswered how the nine-alarm fire started. Police said it was an accident; fire officials said it was arson; a prosecutor blamed it on a short in an electric transformer.

The public spat prompted a sharp tongue-lashing from Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who set up a system in which federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents responded to every fatal fire in Baltimore -- including the one on Norwood Avenue.

ATF officials did not respond to repeated telephone calls to their office yesterday and last week. State Fire Marshal Rocco J. Gabriele said he sent two investigators to the fire scene at the request of the Fire Department.

Difference in focus

"The discussion was where did the fire start," Gabriele said, "and based on where the fire started, should it be homicide or accidental. We confirmed the findings of the fire investigation."

That conclusion, according to Fugate, is that the fire started on the staircase from the basement to the first floor. Police, according to Fugate and Gabriele, are concentrating on the kitchen.

Officials would not disclose any evidence recovered or say why they are leaning one way or another. They would not say whether laboratory tests revealed an accelerant, such as gasoline; investigators removed the entire staircase the day of the fire.

And reports that Juanita Roy was seen jumping from a car to escape two men the day before the blaze do not appear to have been connected to the fire, police say.

Fugate said that if police "had gotten a clear-cut suspect" the night of the fire, "I suspect they would have pursued the case."

Gavrilis called that assertion an insult to his homicide detectives.

"We still have investigative avenues to pursue," he said. "In fairness to the family, we have to wait until all the evidence is in. We deal in facts."

Pub Date: 6/07/98

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