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May 06. 2013 9:50PM

Task force focus on arson in Manchester having desired effect

MANCHESTER - Eighteen months after the city's arson investigation unit was formed, the multi-departmental approach to stopping firestarters is still producing results - while helping to reduce the rate of suspicious blazes.

"It's still a very active task force," said Manchester Police Chief David Mara. "It's a good example of a coordinated effort between city departments, who are able to work closely, and well, together for the good of the community. They had another arrest (last) week."

An investigation by the city's arson task force resulted in the arrest last Tuesday of Heather Jones, 39, of 415 Granite Street on four counts of arson, in connection with three suspicious fires along the same block on the West Side, as well as a blaze in the building she lives in. District Fire Chief Michael Gamache said a surveillance camera caught images of a woman allegedly setting the fire, and investigators assigned to the task force dispatched to the scene recognized Jones, who they claim was watching firefighters extinguish the flames.

An arson task force was formed by the city fire and police departments in 2011, with assistance from state police and the state fire marshal. Cases investigated as possible arsons are listed as being of incendiary origin. It can take weeks, sometimes months, to determine that the fire was deliberatively set. Investigators use physical evidence, insurance and financial paperwork and forensic investigation techniques to determine that a fire is arson, not accidental.

According to city crime statistics, in 2011 there were 72 arson cases investigated by police in Manchester, 5 of which resulted in arrests. The task force was formed halfway through that year, and in 2012 the number of cases fell to 55, with 6 cases cleared by arrest.

As of May 3, there have been 14 arson cases in Manchester. Of those, 5 - nearly one third - have resulted in arrests.

"We've had good results so far this year," said Manchester Det. Tim Patterson, a member of the task force. "This is one of the hardest crimes to solve."

Patterson said the Manchester task force has a significantly higher success rate in terms of case clearances resulting in arrests than similar groups across the country. Patterson said the national clearance rate is annually about 2 or 3 percent of all cases, while in Manchester it's closer to 15 or 16 percent.

"That's a pretty significant difference," said Patterson. "They are hard cases to crack, because we usually start out behind the eight ball. The evidence burns, there's no one there to see it happen, and there's usually no cameras filming when it's lit."

"It's a very good group of investigators," said Capt. Nick Willard, Manchester Police Investigative Division Commander, who oversees his department's involvement with the task force. "They aren't called to every fire, but once they are they hit the ground running. The investigation starts immediately. I think it can be a deterrent."

Willard said the task force features the same team of investigators - Peter Lennon, Mitch Cady and Rick Clement of the Manchester Fire Department - as when it was first formed. The exception is Patterson, who joined the team last year.

Willard said members of the task force are required to go through specialized training for arson investigators.

"We are very lucky to have someone like Detective Patterson on the task force," said Willard. "He is an instructor at the Arson Seminar each year at St. Anselm."

Tips from the public are also an important part of preventing suspicious fires.

"Tips are very important, they help us tremendously," said Deputy Fire Marshal Paul Lennon said. "Anything is going to help, no matter how small. Every bit of information is important."

The Manchester Fire Department maintains an "Arson Tipline," an anonymous way for citizens to report knowledge of arsons. The telephone number for the tipline is 644-FIRE (3473), and the email address is arson@manchesternh.gov. Callers can leave voice mails, and anyone providing a tip is eligible for a reward if the information leads to an arrest and prosecution.

Willard said there is no peak season for arson cases.

"They can occur any time," said Willard. "Usually, we'll get one individual who feels a need to set fires, or a particular item on fire. If that person is identified, and charged, the arsons may stop for a bit, and then you get someone who wants to be a copycat and they start up again."

Manchester does have a higher number of arson cases than comparable cities in New England. In 2011, Worcester, Mass., reported 10 arson cases. Portland, Maine, reported 18 cases, while Burlington, Vt., shows two cases. That same year, Manchester reported 72 arson cases.

"People should realize, just because there are 55 arsons here in one year, there probably aren't 55 arsonists running around," said Patterson. "It's not like Manchester is a magnet for people who are obsessed with fire. Someone is fascinated with it, and they keep doing it until they are caught."

pfeely@unionleader.com


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