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Medical malpractice has become a hot issue in our litigious society. The trial lawyers are locked in battle with the doctors, while the politicians and the patients look on. This is about one skirmish in that battle, told by one of the casualties.
Donald Austin, M.D., was a well-respected neurosurgeon, operating at the cutting edge of medical technology. He was justly regarded as an expert in the field, and as such gave testimony for the defense in many malpractice lawsuits. However, he was shocked by some instances of malpractice, and when he decided to testify for plaintiffs as well, he did not bargain for what ensued. As his testifying became known, both his professional colleagues and the medical societies carried out a smear campaign that ended his professional career.
About the Author
Donald Austin, M.D., is a third-generation doctor. A native of Indiana, he now lives in Michigan. He was chief of the neurosurgery section of the Hutzel Hospital in Detroit for many years and associate professor of neurosurgery at Wayne State University. He is married, with four grown children, and is now, reluctantly, retired.
There is no such thing as a small fire. Fire knows no boundaries and adheres to no restrictions. It is limited only by its supply of oxygen and the availability of a fuel source. Someone can set a small and insignificant fire, but fires only start small. They can fizzle out and die, but all too often they grow, vast and terrible. They destroy property. They take lives.
Sadly, the most persistent and dangerous incendiary fire-setters are the weakest and least responsible of us all: children. According to the New Jersey Division of Fire Safety, juveniles in the United States annually set 41,900 fires that result in 165 deaths, 1,900 injuries, and $272 million in property damage. Fifty-five percent of all arson arrests in the United States are children under the age of 18, nearly half of whom are under the age of 15, and 6.8% of whom are younger than 10 years old. Who are these children, and why do they set fires?
A 3-year-old innocently playing with a cigarette lighter left out by a careless parent might cause a conflagration in which his entire family dies. A 10-year-old might ignite his mattress in a desperate attempt to draw attention to an intolerable home situation. A high school student might throw a match into a wastebasket so that an alarm will go off and disrupt a dreaded test. One teenager might set fire to a car. Another might set fire to a rival’s home. Some have even been known to toss flammable liquids on derelicts because it amused them to watch the wretched souls flailing frantically at flames and screaming in pain. A successful actress I once knew told me that as a child, she had set fires for emotional relief. Children set fires out of boredom, anger, and rage. The motivations of youthful fire-setters run the gamut from curiosity to pathology, from innocence to evil.
Recently, I received a letter from a special education teacher, whom I will call Sarah Nelson, who works for the New York City school system. Her letter began:
Gerald, who is repeating third grade, did so well that I was wondering WHY he had been placed in my class until, following a real fire evacuation at about 11 o’clock that morning (after someone had set the paper towel dispenser in the boys’ bathroom ablaze), I was called into the principal’s office.
There sat Gerald, two other boys, and his teacher.
“Mrs. Nelson,” asked the principal. “Was Gerald with you between 10:45 and 11:00 a.m. today?”
“Yes. He was taking the assessment test.”
“Did Gerald leave you at any time to use the bathroom?”
In the 47 seconds or so that Gerald had taken “to relieve himself,” he had pulled out a purloined lighter from his pocket and lit up the paper towels.
And this was not his first fire of the day!
A few hours before, Gerald, in the presence of the other two boys sitting in the principal’s office, had used matches to light up a toilet paper roll!
In the case of the paper towels, one of the male teachers had happened by, saw flames coming from the dispenser, rushed to the science room where there were two buckets filled with water, and attacked the fire. It was then that smoke had come pouring out of the bathroom and the alarm had been sounded.
Dismayed as I was to hear about these fires, it was not until I had read the next paragraph that I changed my mind about how I was going to approach this subject:
Of course, we did not DARE disturb the fire department to check our suppression efforts and/or “light” into the student body about fire safety. And our principal refuses to let us cover the incident in our student newspaper. It is for this reason I thought of you and wondered if you could give me some tips about juvenile fire-setters.
Needless to say, the small, unreported fires in Sarah’s school did not loom in my mind as small. I saw them as the deadly conflagrations that they might so easily have become. To alert my friend to the seriousness of her situation, I related some frightening statistics accumulated in the spring of 2004 by the Massachusetts Coalition for Kids in Danger. The Coalition’s purpose was to track media coverage of children who set fires or set off bombs.
In the first 201 days of the project, children burned over 57 vehicles, set fires that destroyed over 48,594 acres of forest, set 218 houses on fire, and destroyed 228 apartments, 30 businesses, and 13 churches. Additionally, they killed 80 people (26 of whom were children who perished in fires that they, themselves, had set) and injured 346 people, including 63 firefighters, police officers, and bomb technicians. Relative to institutions of learning, in its first 7 months of information gathering, the study found that 301 or 31% of the 901 fires set by children had targeted schools. These statistics, however, reflect only fires that were reported in the media. If we could add in fires like those described to me by Sarah Nelson—ones left unreported because principals do not want their schools to look bad—the statistics would become ominous indeed.
My involvement with juvenile fire-setters began when a polygraph expert contacted my late husband and me. He had been hired by a drug rehabilitation facility that I will call Kid City (my version of Boys Town) to determine which of the young people on the premises was responsible for setting a series of fires. Because there were hundreds of suspects and the polygraphist could not possibly test them all, he suggested that Kid City hire us. Our company, Charles G. King Associates, investigates the origin and cause of fires (origin: where a fire started; cause: what or who initiated the blaze).
At that time, most of the high school-aged children in Kid City had either been remanded there by the courts or had been placed there by family members or guardians for drug rehabilitation. The greatest percentage of those in the facility were criminals, and some were hardened criminals. All were underage. Their ages were relevant because Kid City was mandated by law to maintain the absolute confidentiality of their juvenile population. This meant that, although the local fire department could be called in to fight a fire, after extinguishment, they were required to leave. Nor would a city, county, or state fire marshal be permitted to enter the building to analyze the fire scene, search for hidden stashes of matches, or interview the residents.
This left Kid City in a terrible bind because at least one of their residents had set a series of fires, but, unlike the public school system situation related to me by Sarah Nelson, Kid City was completely committed to the continued safety of the young people in its charge. This is why they brought us in to investigate the fires. First, Charlie and I were asked to sign documents protecting the confidentiality of the residents (all of the names and places in this article have been changed); then we were briefed.
Kid City was located about 2 hours north of a big eastern city. The four-story structure was slightly larger than a county hospital, and it was surrounded by acres of beautiful farmland where residents were encouraged to grow crops and take nature walks. Other than some pleasant administrative offices on the ground floor and an elegant wood-paneled religious sanctuary, the building itself was institutional and utilitarian: cinderblock classrooms, cinderblock dormitory, communal dining rooms, and so on.
During our briefing by the director of Kid City, we were told that over the past seven months, three fires had occurred:
- February 28 –Someone had taken a bunch of papers, piled them in a bin in the basement of Kid City, and ignited them. The fire was set at 8:20 a.m.
- July 13 –Someone had shoved a wad of toilet paper between the arm and cushion of a sofa and set it on fire. This fire had not occurred at Kid City proper, but at its induction facility over 50 miles south. The fire had been discovered a little after midnight.
- August 14 – This fire was set between two mattresses stored in the cinderblock closet of an empty room on the fourth floor of Kid City where the kids used to “coop,” or hang out. The fire occurred at 6:57 p.m.
We were called in after the third fire. Initially, the task of discovering who had set these fires was daunting, in no small part because our pool of suspects was upward of 150 residents. We then had to multiply this pool by three (once for each fire). In order to cut the list down to a manageable size, we asked the administrators to go through their files and give us only the names of those residents who had been at Kid City for at least the last two and optimally for all three of the fires. This reduced our pool to a little over one hundred suspects. To whittle the list down further, we drafted an affidavit and had copies distributed to the 100 plus residents on the list, as well as to all of the counselors, teachers, and administrators in Kid City.
The affidavit asked the individual to write his or her name and to answer four questions about each of the three fires. The questions were carefully worded to make the respondents feel that they were only reporting their observations, and not being tattletales or informants. It was not their job to identify the fire setter, it was ours. The four questions were
- Where were you at the time of the fire?
- What were you doing?
- Who did you see?
- Who saw you?
After the forms had been filled out, they were returned to us. Once we had a chance to look them over, we realized, somewhat to our surprise, that not only had the residents been willing to answer our questions, they had done so eagerly. We also noticed that fear of injury or death superseded peer group loyalty. The teenagers in the facility had a firm grasp of how dangerous a fire could be. Most of the students had been in residence only for the fires that had occurred in Kid City and made no mention of the fire at the induction facility. Many gave detailed observations that specified locations, recalled times, and named names. What follows is a sampling of typical responses:
During the first fire I was with my clan leader Evelyn V. talking about my problems. Then I went to seminar at 1:00 o’clock.
During the second fire I was in the rec room relating with Margaret C. Rene D., Dave H., Todd M., Marty E., and Jerome L.
First Fire – I was eating lunch until approx. 12:45. Then I went down to the auditorium for seminar. I do not remember who I was with at the time. Evelyn V. was going to give the seminar. I was reading until the fire began. At approx. 1:05 the alarm went off and I went outside.
Second Fire – I was in the recreation room, listening to music with Donald A., Joe Z., Joe B., and one other person. At approx. 9:30 I went upstairs to my room, and was still there when the alarm went off. When I was leaving the floor during the alarm, Bill D., saw me on the floor.
From these responses, we extrapolated where people were, when they were there, what they were doing, whom they saw, and who saw them. Then we tediously cross-referenced times, places, and residents. If Donna wrote that she had seen Thomas, Iris, and Edwin in the basement, we wanted to know if Thomas, Iris, and Edwin had also seen Donna. Our ultimate goal was to identify who had been in the area of the various fire scenes at the times of the fire and who had not.
The work was time-consuming and required meticulous attention to detail, but it produced results. Once we had completed and studied our charts, we were able to eliminate all but four suspects: Chris Ramirez, Fred Pozniak, Tyrell Washington, and Randy Scarp.
- Chris Ramirez had been seen on the fourth floor immediately before the fire.
- When the alarm went off, he was overheard saying that there were mattresses in room 411 that would be easy to set on fire.
- He was seen smoking a cigarette on the fourth floor immediately prior to the fire.
- He had set two fires before he was 6 years old. One in his grandfather’s garbage and one in his father’s grocery store. Coincidentally, the pizza store next door to his father’s grocery store had also burned down.
- Fred Pozniak was seen on the fourth floor shortly before the fire.
- He was moody, quiet, and used to hang out on the mattresses in the “fire room.”
- He was a bed wetter and claimed to have been an abused child.
- He was a loner and was picked on and teased for being unattractive.
- He was very grim and depressed on the day of the fire.
- Tyrell Washington had told two other boys at Kid City that he had a prior arrest for arson that was not in his records.
- He was present for all three fires.
- He had a hostile attitude and was overheard threatening to blow up the building.
- Randy Scarp wanted to leave Kid City and hated the place.
- He was reported to have a sadistic streak and laughed when other people were in pain.
- He seemed to have no control over his emotions.
- He was heard stating that “people are going to start dropping” at Kid City.
- Many of the other residents thought that he was not really a drug addict, but that he was crazy.
Once our list had become manageable, we moved to the next phase of our investigation. This was to interview each suspect individually and ask him what he had seen, when and where he had seen it, and who he thought had set the fires. Our interview strategy was low-key. Each youngster would be brought into a private room, asked questions, and invited to respond at length. None of the interviews were tape-recorded. Nobody from the staff was present. Charlie and I took turns asking questions, and I took all the notes.
After we had finished our interviews, we created four final charts, one for each suspect. Each consisted of three columns. The first column was headed “Witness” and listed the names of the residents who had seen one of the four main suspects at the time of a fire. The Second column was headed “What clears him” and delineated what the witness had seen that seemed to exculpate the suspect. The third column, headed “What makes him look suspicious,” did the same for what made him look guilty.
The following might be a typical entry for Tyrell Washington:
- Witness—Bill Hix
- What clears him— Bill saw Tyrell in the courtyard after dinner.
- What makes him look suspicious—Tyrell was present for all three fires and is known to have a hostile attitude. He told Bill and at least two other kids that he had been arrested for arson prior to coming to Kid City. Bill also overheard Tyrell threatening to blow up a building.
Our analysis of the entries on these four charts made it evident that only Randy Scarp had been sighted by multiple witnesses in the areas of all three fires. The “conclusion” column on his chart read:
Randy Scarp is the only suspect who was confirmed to be on the fourth floor at the time of the fire and who admits to being there. He denies setting the fire, but cannot explain why he did not see who did, because he was in the hall at the time the fire was set. There is also a problem with his disposal of a cigarette he was smoking at the time, as he said that he tossed it out a window, but that window is covered with a screen.
At the interview, he presented himself as compassionate and good-natured. He said he did not resent being accused of setting the fire, that he was not angry, and that he had not been out to get anybody lately.
The most suspicious thing about Randy, other than his proximity to both fires, is the benign way in which he presented himself. This benevolence is in complete contrast to the way others describe him. Also, unlike the others who were interviewed, at the end of his interview, we felt that Randy gave an audible sigh of relief that it was over.
After we had finished our interviews, our charts, and our analyses, we told the Kid City director that we had eliminated three of our four prime suspects and that we believed Randy Scarp, alone, had set all three fires. He responded that they were going to polygraph all four boys.
Subsequently, the polygraphist told us that Randy Scarp was, and I quote from my notes, “heavy duty guilty.”
Nevertheless, all four boys were kicked out. Charlie and I may have cleared Chris Ramirez, Fred Pozniak, and Tyrell Washington of involvement in those specific incendiary incidents, but Kid City was not going to take any chances. Fire is too dangerous, and too many lives were at stake. They knew, as we do, that children who set fires are a fact of reality, an unfortunate fact brought home to me when my friend, Sarah Nelson, contacted me again—this time on a cell phone from her classroom. After a minute or two, I had calmed her down enough to learn that two more fires had been set that morning in her school. As before, school officials had themselves extinguished the fires and had not contacted the fire department. Unlike the administrators at Kid City, they had not learned the most important lesson about fire, one I believe should be engraved in giant letters for all to see:
THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A SMALL FIRE. THERE ARE ONLY FIRES THAT HAVE NOT GOTTEN BIG—YET.
Shelly Reuben King is the author of Tabula Rasa, Origin & Cause, Spent Matches, the Edgar-nominated Julian Solo, and Weeping. She is a licensed private detective and a certified fire investigator who has been investigating fires and arson for more than 20 years. King is a Diplomate of the American Board of Forensic Examiners and has been a member of the American College of Forensic Examiners since 1996.