Arson Murder Cases

31 Cases

Maricopa County, AZ

John Knapp

Nov 16, 1973 (East Mesa)

John Henry Knapp was sentenced to death for allegedly setting a fire that killed his two daughters, Linda Louise, 3 1/2, and Iona Marie, 2 1/2. The fire occurred in the children's bedroom at the Knapp house located at 7435 East Capri in East Mesa, AZ. Shortly before the coroner's inquest, Knapp's wife, Linda, fled to Nebraska. Knapp was told that a fuel can found at the site of the fire had no identifiable children's prints (thus ruling out accident), but did contain numerous adult prints. During his interrogation, Knapp confessed to setting the fire, but recanted within minutes and never wavered in maintaining his innocence.
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Pima County, AZ

Louis Taylor

Dec 21, 1970 (Tucson)

Louis C. Taylor was convicted of 28 counts of first-degree murder. He was accused of setting fire to the Pioneer International Hotel on the northeast corner of Stone Ave. and Pennington St. in downtown Tucson. Twenty-nine people died as a result of the fire, including one woman who died months later from injuries sustained in the fire. Taylor, 16, whose juvenile-court record included theft, was accused of setting the fire (or fires) as a diversion so he could steal from guests' rooms. No one saw him set the fire. But a hotel employee saw him in a stairwell looking up at the flames and mentioned him to police. Other witnesses said he was one of that night's heroes, helping to evacuate the hotel.

The chief arson investigator found no obvious evidence of arson – no residue of flammable liquid or burned matchsticks. Instead he asserted from burn patterns that two fires were started at least 60 feet apart on the fourth floor hallway. Modern experts now dispute the arson finding, and even one of the original investigators, Marshall Smyth, said that he and another fire investigator were like members of “a black magic society” that in those days relied on untested assumptions about what indicated arson. “I came to this opinion some time ago that neither one of us had any business identifying that fire as arson.”

Taylor, after decades of imprisonment, recalled that over the years others – including his former trial judge – advised him to seek a reduced sentence. But one condition was that he admit guilt and show remorse. Taylor said, “I told them I'd rather die in prison.” In 2003, the case was featured on a 60 Minutes episode.  (Hotel Online)  [1/07]

Yavapai County, AZ

Ray Girdler

Nov 20, 1981

Ray Girdler was convicted of setting a fire that killed his wife and child. The conviction was based on testimony by the prosecution's “expert” witness that a flammable liquid was present in Girdler's home. Subsequent tests showed there were no such liquids and that the fire started from natural origins. Girdler was cleared in 1990 after 8 years of imprisonment.  [7/05]

Los Angeles County, CA

Fred Rogers


Courtney Fred Rogers was sentenced to death for the murders of his parents. In Oct. 1941 his 50-year-old father was rescued from a burning house, but later died of smoke inhalation. Investigators found burning candles in the house and determined that fires had been set in several rooms. The death of Rogers Sr. was ruled a suicide. Eight months earlier, Rogers' mother had died from the inhalation of chloroform. Her death had also been ruled a suicide.

Four months after the death of his father, Rogers was arrested for making a false $400 insurance claim. Police found that the 24-year-old was heavily in debt and began to wonder if he had killed his parents in order to collect on life insurance. Rogers, however, received no insurance proceeds for the death of his mother, although he did receive full ownership of the home he had jointly owned with her. He received only $1000 for the death of his father plus $2300 for damage to the house. Such proceeds were small compared to Rogers' debts.

After 16 days of more-or-less continuous questioning by police, Rogers confessed to the murders of his parents, a confession that he soon retracted. Nevertheless, he was convicted of these alleged murders. In 1943, the California Supreme Court unanimously threw out Rogers' convictions. Evidence that his mother had committed suicide was clear and convincing. The same was true in regard to the death of his father. Neighbors had testified at how despondent Rogers Sr. was over the death of his wife and how he often had spoken of taking his own life. Neighbors also said he had spoken of his dread of being left alone, after Rogers Jr., his only son, answered a draft call into the army. Rogers Jr. was scheduled to report the day after the fatal fire. At retrial, in the face of no evidence against Rogers, the retrial court dismissed charges.  (ISI) (Time)  [2/09]

Stanislaus County, CA

George Souliotes

Jan 15, 1997 (Modesto)

George Souliotes was convicted of arson and triple homicide stemming from a 3 a.m. fire at 1319 Ronald Ave. in Modesto that killed his tenant, Michelle Jones, 30, and her two children, Daniel Jr., 6, and Amanda, 3. At the time of the fire, Souliotes was trying to evict the Jones family from the house. Investigators claimed that Souliotes set the fire to collect insurance money. Investigators also claimed that medium petroleum distillates, a class of sometimes-flammable substances, were found on both Souliotes's shoes and a carpet in the home. At trial many defenses witnesses testified that Souliotes had no financial motive to set the fire. The defense also presented its own arson expert who testified that the fire could have been an accident, possibly caused by a faulty stove. The trial ended in a hung jury.

At the second trial, in 1999, Souliotes was represented by the same trial attorney. The prosecution presented the same witnesses, but this time the defense counsel presented no witnesses at all.  Souliotes was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Since his second trial, arson investigators have reanalyzed the evidence, and found that the medium petroleum distillate found on Souliotes's shoes is not the same substance that was found at the scene.  (IP Arson)  [12/07]

 New Castle County, DE

Mark Kirk

Dec 5, 1996 (New Castle)

Mark Anthony Kirk was convicted of triple homicide for allegedly starting an apartment house fire that killed three people. The fire began on a stove in Kirk's apartment in Building 8 of the Beaver Brook Apartments. Police interrogated Kirk for hours, and engaged in psychological manipulations including threatening him with a death sentence. Kirk eventually confessed to accidentally starting the fire. He said he was using an electric burner on the stove to light a cigarette when he spilled a bottle of Captain Morgan's Spiced Rum on the burner, causing the fire.
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Butts County, GA 

Jean Long

Jan 23, 2003

Beverly Jean Long was charged with murdering her husband, James Long, in his workshop. According to police, she cracked his skull, dragged his body, poured an accelerant on top of him, and ignited it. Investigators claimed to find pour patterns on the floor where the accelerant puddled. They said Jean's story that the fire started when James was filling up a kerosene heater did not make sense. They noted that the red filling can that Jean mentioned was found undamaged outside the workshop.

Defense investigators debunked the pour pattern evidence. According to them, James mistakenly poured gasoline into a hot, but unlit kerosene heater. Gasoline residue was found in the heater. The gasoline exploded, setting James and his workshop on fire. While he was running around on fire, James apparently hit his head on a metal worktable, cracking his skull. The red filling can found outside the workshop was apparently not the one that was used as it contained kerosene. At trial, Jean Long was acquitted.  (Forensic Files)  [9/07]

Fulton County, GA 

Weldon Wayne Carr

Apr 7, 1993 (Sandy Springs)

Weldon Wayne Carr was convicted of the arson-murder of his wife in 1993. A trained dog purportedly found evidence that an accelerant was used to start the fire. Prosecutors said Carr had discovered his wife was having an affair and alleged that he knocked her unconscious before setting their house on fire. The jury acquitted Carr of assault. In 1997, the Georgia Supreme Court overturned Carr's conviction and the Court ordered a new trial. Carr was released on bond in 1998. In June 2004, the Georgia Supreme Court ordered the charges dropped because the prosecution had not initiated a retrial after six years. The prosecution was unable to find an expert to support their theory of the crime.  (Atlanta JC)  [7/05]

 Cook County, IL

Lloyd Lindsey

Oct 21, 1974

Lloyd Lindsey was convicted of murdering three little girls and their brother. He was also convicted of raping one of the girls. A man who boarded with the children's family and a surviving brother told police when interviewed together that Lindsey along with Eugene Ford and Willie Robinson had strangled the children after raping the girls. The three men then set fire to the home. Lindsey confessed to this crime, parroting the details of the boarder and surviving brother. The home, at 1408 W. 61st Street in Chicago, was occupied by Mrs. Catherine Horace, her six children, and Lavelle Watkins, the boarder.

Medical evidence indicated that the children had not been strangled, but had died of smoke inhalation. Two of the girls, moreover, were virgins and showed no signs of sexual abuse. Lindsey and his compatriots, who had not confessed, were tried together, but with separate juries. Lindsey was convicted, but his compatriots were acquitted. In 1979, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed Lindsey's conviction, and barred a retrial. It ruled “the inconsistencies in the testimony of [the principal prosecution witnesses] were not only contradictory but diluted [their testimony] to the level of palpable improbability and incredulity.”  (CWC)  [1/06]

 Cook County, IL

Madison Hobley

Jan 6, 1987

A fire broke out in Madison Hobley's apartment building early in the morning, which killed his wife, infant son, and five other people. Hobley escaped wearing only underwear. Later in the day, detectives picked him up and tortured him in an attempt to extract a confession that he started the fire. When torture did not work, four detectives asserted that Hobley made a confession. No record of this confession existed. One detective claimed to have made notes but threw them away after something spilled on them.

The prosecution claimed that Hobley had bought $1 worth of gasoline, which he used to start the fire. They produced a gasoline can allegedly found at the fire scene, but a defense expert pointed out that it showed no exposure to the high heat of the fire, as its plastic cap was undamaged. After trial, the defense learned that a second gasoline can was found at the fire scene but police destroyed it after the defense issued a subpoena for it.

In addition, post-conviction affidavits of jurors stated that non-jurors intimidated some of them while they were sequestered at a hotel, and that they were prejudiced by the acts of the jury foreperson, a police officer, who believed Hobley was guilty. The affidavits also stated that jurors brought newspapers with articles about the case into the jury room and that they repeatedly violated the trial court's sequestration. In 2003, Gov. George Ryan granted Hobley a pardon based on innocence.  (CWC)  [9/05]

Whitley County, KY 

Larry Osborne

Dec 14, 1997

Larry Osborne was convicted of murdering Sam Davenport, 82, and his wife Lillian, 76. He was sentenced to death. The victims were hit over the head and their house was set on fire. They died of smoke inhalation. Osborne, 17, and his friend, Joe Reid, 15, said they heard breaking glass from the Davenport home when they passed it while riding a motorbike on the night of the murders. Osborne phoned his mother, who in turn phoned the police. When the police arrived at the scene, the house was in flames.

After repeated interrogations, police got 15-year-old Reid to state that Osborne committed the murders while he waited outside. In a police videotape of Reid's statements, Reid is seen asking “Is this going to get me out of all this stuff?” Reid also stated that after Osborne set fire to the house, he left it through the back door. However the back door had a dead bolt lock, with a double key. It is not believed that anyone one went through it that night.

Before Reid could testify at Osborne's trial, he drowned while swimming in Jellico, Tennessee. His death was ruled accidental. At Osborne's trial, the prosecutor read Reid's statement. The defense objected, but the judge overruled the objection. On appeal, the Kentucky Supreme Court overturned Osborne's conviction. Reid's testimony was ruled inadmissible because a dead witness cannot be cross-examined. Osborne was acquitted at retrial after spending three years on death row.  (Louisville CJ) (TWM) (JD)

Rapides Parish, LA 

Amanda Hypes

Jan 2001 (Tioga)

Amanda Hypes, aka Amanda Gutweiler, was indicted in April 2002 for the arson murder of her three children, Sadie Plum, 10, Luke Hayden, 6, and Jessica Gutweiler, 3. A fire “expert,” John DeHaan, ruled that the Jan. 2001 fire that destroyed her home on Friar Tuck Road in Tioga was arson. Prosecutors said they would demand the death penalty. After being held in jail awaiting trial for more than four years, a judge dismissed the indictment and released Hypes. He ruled that the original arson finding was based “merely on an old wives tale,” of discredited fire investigation techniques.  (Chicago Tribune)  [3/07]

Jackson County, MO 

Kansas City Five

Nov 29, 1988

Darlene Edwards, 43, Frank Sheppard, 46, Earl “Skip” Sheppard, 37, Bryan Sheppard, 26, and Richard Brown, 26, all Native Americans, were convicted of setting a fire that caused an explosion and killed six firefighters. The fire occurred at a site associated with the construction of a ten-mile road. Two trailers on the site contained 50,000 pounds of construction explosives. The explosion had 5 times the impact of the Oklahoma City bomb, evaporated a fire department pumper, and was heard 45 miles away. As late as 1995, ATF agents said on the TV show Unsolved Mysteries that the fire was set by organized labor to teach the general contractor a lesson for using non-union labor. But the demand for closure and $50,000 reward money led police and prison snitches to finger five indigent Native Americans who had nothing to do with organized labor. (Crime Magazine: Part 1 Part 2) (KC Fire Fighters Case)  [9/05]

Lawrence County, MO 

Johnny Lee Wilson

Apr 13, 1986 (Aurora)

Johnny Lee Wilson was convicted of the murder of 79-year-old Pauline Martz. Martz had been beaten up, tied, and then burned after her home was set on fire. Wilson, a mentally retarded man, had confessed to the crime after a police interrogation. In 1988, another man, Chris Brownfield, gave a confession to the crime which provided details that corroborated his involvement. Wilson was pardoned and released in 1995.  (U.S. News)  [4/08]

St. Louis County, MO 

Sandra Kemper

Nov 16, 2001 (Black Jack)

Sandra Kemper confessed to starting a house fire that killed her 15-year-old son after she was told that she failed a lie detector test. The defense argued the confession was coerced. The trial judge allowed evidence of the lie detector test into the trial. The defense argued that it showed an 88 percent probability she was telling the truth. The judge then declared a mistrial because he changed his mind about the admissibility of the test. In 2006, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that Kemper cannot be retried, as a retrial would violate the law against double jeopardy.  (Appeal)  [9/06]

Kings County, NY

Eric Jackson

Aug 2, 1978

Eric (Erick) Jackson, also known as Eric Knight, was convicted of setting a fire to a Waldbaum's Supermarket in Sheepshead Bay. Six firefighters died in the blaze. The investigation was plagued by public disputes between fire marshals and police arson investigators. After an informant fingered him, Jackson was indicted in May 1979 on arson and murder charges. Police said he confessed to setting the fire for $500. Jackson was sentenced to 25 years to life.

The firefighters’ widows hired an attorney, Robert Sullivan, to bring a lawsuit for civil damages. In the course of preparing that lawsuit, Sullivan concluded that Jackson was innocent. Sullivan turned his efforts toward obtaining Jackson’s release. He was later recognized by the New York State Bar Association for his efforts in the case.

In 1988, a judge overturned Jackson's conviction because prosecutors had withheld evidence from his defense. This information included a fire marshal’s report that there had been “four separate and distinct fires” in the supermarket, of which only one caused the deaths of the firefighters. In addition, a New York City Police detective who had been involved in the investigation concluded that the fire was caused by an electrical short circuit, and said that he had repeatedly told this to the District Attorney’s office.

In 1994, Jackson was retried. The defense maintained that Jackson's confession was coerced and that the fire was an accident resulting from faulty electrical wiring. Jackson was acquitted and released after serving nearly ten years in prison.  (IP Arson) (Inevitable Error) (People v. Jackson)  [7/07]

Westchester County, NY 

Luis Marin

Dec 4, 1980

“Luis Marin was convicted in Westchester County of twenty-six counts of murder arising from a [fire at a Stouffer’s Inn in Harrison, NY.] Marin successfully moved the trial court for a post-verdict order dismissing the indictments based on insufficiency of the trial evidence. The prosecution appealed. The Appellate Division and Court of Appeals upheld the trial court order of dismissal. It was held that having an empty gasoline container and siphon in his car were insufficient facts to support the inference that Marin had set the fire. In sum, the evidence presented at trial was simply insufficient to sustain the charges. ‘[T]he loss of life at the Stouffer’s Inn fire was a tragedy of staggering proportion ... However, the tragedy would be compounded by the conviction and imprisonment of a person whose criminal responsibility for that tragedy has not been proven.’” – Inevitable Error  (Appeals)

Cuyahoga County, OH 

Eve Rudd

June 10, 2001

Twenty-seven-year-old Eve Rudd was indicted by a grand jury for the arson murders of her 4-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son. Authorities charged Rudd after finding pour patterns, which they said were evidence that she had doused clothing and papers in a second-floor bedroom with cooking oil and set the room ablaze. But the pour patterns proved to be a faulty indicator of arson.

Kenneth Gibson, a fire investigator retained by defense lawyers, videotaped an experiment with cooking oil and found it was not an accelerant – the oil by itself was not flammable unless it was heated to 540 degrees. Gerald Hurst, who also investigated the fire for the defense, said there were so many burn patterns, “you can't interpret them anymore.” A jury acquitted Rudd after she spent nine months in jail.  [10/07]

Putnam County, OH 

Kenny Richey

June 30, 1986

Kenny Richey was sentenced to death for the murder of three-year-old Cynthia Collins. Richey was allegedly angry at an ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend, so he allegedly set fire to the apartment above theirs, hoping the fire would burn through the concrete floor and injure them while they slept. The prosecution advanced this theory even though they seemed to agree that Richey knew that Cynthia Collins was sleeping in that apartment. During the fire, Richey had risked his life trying to rescue Cynthia, so his alleged actions do not make sense. Cynthia's mother, Hope Collins, had left in the middle of the night with a convicted drug dealer. When she came back after the fire, she faced prosecution for child abandonment, so she told authorities Richey had agreed to babysit Cynthia.

The prosecution also claimed Richey made vague statements at a party before the fire, saying the building was going to burn, almost as though they were statements about the party. Curiously, the alleged statements imply a casual motive instead of the proffered one. Whether true or not, vague statements are characteristic of perjured testimony. Individuals who lie on the stand typically do not want to get caught and will only readily make statements they can back away from. One witness later denied her testimony while another claimed Richey did not mean anything by the statement she testified to. Richey denied making such statements and thought it was stupid that he would make them if he intended to do what the prosecution alleged.

It was later learned that Cynthia started two previous fires. Carpet remnants from the burned apartment had been discarded and buried at the local dump. After the police retrieved the buried remnants, the remnants were said to contain traces of accelerants, gasoline, and paint thinner. The federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Richey's conviction in Jan. 2005. However, the state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reinstated the conviction in Nov. 2005. The Supreme Court remanded the case back to the Sixth Circuit Court, which again reversed Richey's conviction in Aug. 2007. In Dec. 2007, Richey was released after pleading no contest to involuntary manslaughter, child endangering and breaking and entering charges. The plea involved no admission of guilt. He received a time-served sentence.  [12/06]

Cumberland County, PA

Letitia Smallwood

Aug 29, 1972 (Carlisle)

Letitia Denise Smallwood was convicted of the arson murders of two people who died in an apartment building fire. The fire occurred at 11 North Pitt St. in Carlisle during the early morning hours of Aug. 29, 1972. The decedents, Paula Wagner and Steven Johnson were residents of the building. Wagner died of injuries received when jumping from the building. Johnson, unable to escape the flames, died from extensive burns. A second floor witness and a third floor witness to the fire described the fire differently. The third floor witness saw the fire at about 2:35 a.m. The second floor witness reported seeing the fire at “2:20 or 3:20.” The prosecutor coaxed this witness to agree that he could have seen the fire at 20 minutes to 3. Since the witnesses apparently saw two different fires at about the same time, the prosecutor then argued that the fire must have been arson because it must have had two separate points of origin. Smallwood was convicted by weak circumstantial evidence backed by the belief that the fire was an unquestionable case of arson.  (TruthInJustice)

Lehigh County, PA

Dennis Counterman

July 25, 1988 (Allentown)

Dennis Counterman was sentenced to death for the arson murder of his three children. The children perished in a fire at their row house home located at 436 Chestnut St. in Allentown. On the morning of the fire, neighbors reported seeing Dennis in his back yard in his underwear screaming for help because his kids were inside. The fire department believed that the fire was set and accelerants must have been used because of the speed with which the fire spread through the house. Expert testimony has since shown that the type of sofa that was in the Counterman's house acts as its own accelerant, and that the fire theories relied upon by the local fire department were outdated and have long since been repudiated.

At trial, the prosecution suppressed exculpatory evidence, although it released some evidence in the middle of the trial when the defense team was too overwhelmed to review it. Counterman's six-year-old son, Christopher, had a history of fire starting and in fact had burn scars from a prior fire that he had started. Christopher had set fire to the curtains in the house one month before. The prosecution's lead witness, Counterman's mentally retarded wife, told investigators at the time of the fire that Dennis was asleep when the fire started (he had worked the night shift the evening before) and that she had awakened him to alert him that the house was on fire. Under the joint influence of police interrogation and heavy medication for severe burns, she subsequently gave a statement that Dennis had set the fire. Counterman's conviction was overturned in 2001 because the state withheld evidence of Christopher's fire starting. Rather than face the uncertainty of a new trial, Counterman agreed to a time served plea in which he did not have to admit guilt. He was released in Oct. 2006.  (TruthInJustice) (CounterPunch)  [1/07]

Monroe County, PA

Han Tak Lee

July 29, 1989 (Stroud Twp)

Han Tak Lee was convicted of murder for allegedly setting a cabin fire that led to his daughter's death. Investigators schooled in old and now discredited fire investigation beliefs ruled the fire an arson. Beginning in the 1980s, some investigators began setting experimental fires and observing the results. The results of these experiments overturned old beliefs and made fire investigation a science. Modern science-based arson investigators say that the cabin fire that led to the death of Lee's daughter was an accidental fire.  (USA Today) (Arson Investigation)  [3/07]

Montgomery County, PA

Paul Camiolo

Sept 30, 1996

Paul Camiolo was charged in 1999 for the 1996 arson murder of his parents after they died from a fire in the home he shared with them. He faced the death penalty. Authorities also charged Camiolo with insurance fraud. They said he set the fire to collect on a $400,000 inheritance. Camiolo's chain smoking mother had presumably started the fire by dropping a cigarette or match on a sofa. Camiolo tried to put out the fire by throwing a pitcher of water on it, but such an action only made the fire worse. He said he told his semi-invalid parents to go out the back door and he called 911. His mother made it out to the back porch, but later died from injuries sustained during the fire. His father was found in an indoor bathroom and was pronounced dead soon afterwards. Camiolo went out the front door and was retrieving clothes from a gym bag in his car when police arrived. It was shortly before dawn and he was still in his underwear. On arrival, the police witnessed the living room windows blow out as the fire reached flashover status.

Floor samples from the first floor where the fire originated tested positive for the presence of gasoline. However, neither the carpet nor the padding above the floor tested positive for gasoline. A volunteer firefighter, Steven Avato, who helped fight the fire, happened to have experience as an ATF arson investigator. He was dumbfounded that Camiolo was charged and rocked the boat by publicly criticizing the arson charges. The state thought Camiolo's exit through the front door was suspicious, but Avato thought it was common for people caught in fires to exit through the door they most commonly use, even if it is not the closest one.

A private investigator tracked down the contractor who built the house. The contractor said the sealer used on the hardwood floors had been thinned with gasoline. Lab tests were performed that revealed the presence of lead in the detected gasoline. Since leaded gas had not been sold for 15 years prior to the fire, investigators concluded that it could not have been used to start this fire. The charges against Camiolo were dropped and he was released after 10 months of imprisonment. For taking a stand in the case for which he was later proven right, Investigator Avato won an Investigator of the Year Award from the International Association of Arson Investigators.  (Forensic Files) (TruthInJustice)  [9/05]

Philadelphia County, PA

Robert Wilkinson

Oct 5, 1975

Robert Wilkinson, a mildly retarded man, was convicted in 1976 of the arson murders of five people. At 3:25 a.m. on Oct 5, 1975 someone used a Molotov cocktail to firebomb the home of Radamas Santiago. The Santiagos, who lived at 4419 North 4th Street, were then asleep in their home. Radamas and one of his sons, Carlos, survived. Radamas's wife, three of his children, and Luis Caracini, a guest in the house, perished in the fire. At the time of the firebombing, 14-year-old Nelson Garcia, a friend of the Santiagos, was sleeping on their front porch. His hair aflame, Garcia fled from the house, looking for a fire alarm. Garcia saw Robert Wilkinson in an automobile stopped near the Santiago home. Because Wilkinson was the first person he saw, Garcia assumed that Wilkinson had thrown the firebomb. He accused Wilkinson, who police then arrested. Garcia later elaborated that he had seen Wilkinson throw a bottle with a burning cloth onto the Santiago porch.
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Philadelphia County, PA

Daniel Dougherty

Aug 24, 1985

In 2000, Daniel J. Dougherty was convicted of starting a 1985 fire at his Carver St. house that killed his two sons, Danny Jr., 4, and John, 3. He was sentenced to death. Thirteen years after the fire, Dougherty's ex-wife called police and said he used gasoline to start the fire. Despite the fact that no traces of gasoline or accelerant were found during the fire investigation, the fire marshal, John J. Quinn, changed his original story to match that of Dougherty's ex-wife. On the day of Dougherty's arrest, his ex-wife left a message on his sister's answering machine stating, “I know he didn't do this. I still love him.” The tape then mysteriously disappeared after being given to his court-appointed attorney. However, paperwork surfaced that documented the tape.

By this time, two prison informants claimed that Dougherty confessed to them that he started the fire. The fire marshal then changed his story again so as to not so closely match the discredited testimony of Dougherty's ex-wife. Dougherty's ex-wife was not used at trial. At trial, the fire marshal testified that there were three separate sources of ignition, a classic indicator of arson according to old school fire investigation techniques.

Three arson experts using modern techniques have since reviewed the case and dispute the alleged separate sources of ignition. They found the original investigation to be so flawed that it was impossible to tell whether the fire was arson. One of them, John J. Lentini, estimated that nationally between 100 and 200 people might be “doing hard time” for arsons that were not arsons. As of 2007, Dougherty is appealing his conviction.  (DeathRowUSA) (News Article) (04) (09)  [3/07]

Lubbock County, TX 

Butch Martin

Feb 25, 1998

Garland Leon Martin, also known as Butch, was convicted of the arson murders of his common law wife, Marcia Pool, her son, Michael Brady Stevens, age 3, and their joint daughter, Kristen Rhea Martin, age 1. The three died in a fire at the home they shared with Martin. The conviction was based in large part on a hypothesis that accelerants were used to start the fire. Some samples from fire remnants in the master bedroom reportedly tested positive for Norpar and deparaffinated kerosene.

Norpar can be used as lamp oil and deparaffinated kerosene can be found in lighter fluid, but they are also common chemicals found in numerous household products. Experts dispute the supposition that these chemicals indicate the presence of accelerants and are petitioning to check the state's evidence that the alleged chemicals were even found. A defense investigator thought the fire started on the back porch rather than in the master bedroom near the back door. He criticized original investigators for discounting and then disposing of an electrical cord that was used to connect a refrigerator on the back porch to an outlet inside the house. He thought the fire marshal was looking for arson from the outset.  (IP Arson)  [7/07]

Navarro County, TX 

Todd Willingham

Dec 23, 1991 (Corsicana)

Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted of murdering his three daughters by setting his house on fire. Under police interrogation, Willingham said that his wife, Stacy, had left the house around 9 a.m. After she got out of the driveway, he heard his one-year-old twin daughters cry, so he got up and gave them a bottle. The children’s room had a safety gate across the doorway which his two-year-old daughter, Amber, could climb over but not the twins. He and Stacy often let the twins nap on the floor after they drank their bottles. Since Amber was still in bed, he went back into his room to sleep. Willingham's house was warmed by three space heaters, one of which was in the children's bedroom. This heater had an internal flame. Amber had been taught not to play with the heater though she reportedly got “whuppings every once in a while for messing with it.”
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Pecos County, TX 

Ernest Willis

June 11, 1986 (Iraan)

Ernest Ray Willis was convicted of murdering Gail Joe Allison, 25, and Elizabeth “Betsy” Grace Belue, 24. The victims died in a house fire that was ruled an arson. Willis was sentenced to death. Police said Willis acted strangely at the scene of the blaze, and they believed that they found an accelerant in the carpet. Prosecutors used Willis's dazed mental state at trial - the result of state administered medication - to characterize him as “coldhearted” and as a “satanic demon.” Years later, a federal court overturned Willis's conviction after finding that the state had administered medically inappropriate anti-psychotic drugs without Willis's consent; that it had suppressed evidence favorable to Willis; and that Willis received ineffective representation at both the guilt and sentencing phases of his trial.

A new district attorney, Ori T. White then reinvestigated the case. The state's new arson specialist revealed that the “accelerant” initially suspected of causing the fire was in fact “flashover burning,” consistent with electrical fault fires. The state dropped charges against Willis in 2004 and White commented that Willis “simply did not do the crime. ... I'm sorry this man was on death row for so long and that there were so many lost years.” Willis was awarded $430,000 for his time behind bars.  (San Antonio Express-News) (Texas Monthly)  [3/06]

Pecos County, TX 

Sonia Cacy

Nov 10, 1991

Sonia Cacy was convicted of the arson murder of her 76-year-old uncle, with whom she shared a house. Cacy's uncle, Bill Richardson, was a careless chain smoker who smoked several packs a day. According to Cacy, his smoking had started about 50 fires, including one about three years earlier that burned his leased home to the ground. Testimony described multiple cigarette burns on Richardson's furniture. The fire marshal had been to the home three times in the month prior to the fatal fire to investigate smaller fires.

An autopsy of Richardson showed evidence he had a heart attack and that he was dead before he could inhale any of the heavy smoke from the fire. Nevertheless, at trial, Joe Castorena, the chief toxicologist for the Bexar County Crime Lab testified that there was evidence of gasoline on Richardson's clothing remnants. Based on this finding and no other evidence, the prosecutor convinced a jury that Cacy had doused her uncle with gasoline and set him on fire. Cacy was sentenced to 99 years of imprisonment.

Cacy's court appointed lawyer, Tony Chavez, did little to challenge Castorena's testimony. He did not hire an expert to rebut Castorena, and he was later convicted of being part of a multi-ton marijuana smuggling operation. The chain of custody of Richardson's clothing remnants had been lost and the remnants presented at trial had no documentation on them to show where they originated. Other clothing remnants of Richardson had been sent to a Houston crime lab, which found no evidence of gasoline. After serving 6 years of imprisonment, Cacy was paroled in 1998. However, she is fighting her conviction, in part, because she does not want to be on parole for another 93 years.  (TIJ)  [7/07]

Brown County, WI 

John Maloney

Feb 10, 1998 (Green Bay)

John Maloney, a detective in the Green Bay PD, and an arson investigator, was convicted of strangling his estranged wife, Sandy, and setting her body on fire. Maloney was a suspect because of their impending divorce, ongoing child custody battle, and history of domestic disputes. Sandy was a heavy user of prescription pills and was very drunk at the time of her death. She apparently tried to hang herself shortly before her death, but the cord broke causing her to bruise her head on a coffee table. She then apparently started a fire by careless smoking or perhaps deliberately. The state maintained that Maloney hit her on the head, strangled her, and then set a fire that was staged to look like the result of careless smoking.

Special prosecutor, Joe Paulus (DA of Winnebago County), withheld evidence. Initially the fire was labeled an accident but circular reasoning developed: “The fire guys decided it must be an arson because it was murder. The coroner decided it must be a murder because it was arson.”  (TruthInJustice) (Article 2) (Article 3) (48 Hours)  [11/05]


Tatsuhiro & Keiko

July 22, 1995 (Osaka)

Shimada Tatsuhiro and his common law wife, Aoki Keiko, were both sentenced to life imprisonment for the arson murder of Keiko's daughter. On the day of the alleged crime, Tatsuhiro filled the gas tank of his van before returning to his home in the Higashi-Sumiyoshi ward of Osaka. Ten minutes later he smelled smoke and noticed a small fire in the garage under his van. Tatsuhiro searched for a fire extinguisher, but the fire quickly grew and spread. Keiko's daughter died in the fire after being overcome by smoke in a first floor bathroom. Keiko had 15 million yen life insurance policies on both her children. Life insurance on children was not uncommon, but 5 million yen and 10 million yen policies were more typical. The couple had no financial difficulties at the time of the blaze.
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