New Evidence Suggests Teenager's Conviction in Triple Homicide Arson Case Is Based on Junk Science
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That burn pattern caused him to believe that the fire started on the concrete basement floor and shot up a wall more than seven feet six inches to ignite the joists.
“[The fire’s origin was] in the vicinity of the metal cabinet in the center of the floor between the furnace and the metal cabinet, and to the left of the steel pole that bisects the rear basement,” he would later testify.
By the morning of Valentine’s Day, 1995, after the 14-year ATF veteran noticed circular burn patterns around the ceiling joists, he suspected arson.
What proved it, he later testified in court, was a circular burn pattern that developed where the floor joists had been completely consumed by fire. For that to happen, a powerful flame would have had to rage from floor to ceiling and mushroom out in all directions once it got there, igniting a number of joists simultaneously. The only way a flame could get that high would be from an accelerant like gasoline, he testified later.
Petraitis testified that he conferred with electric and gas company representatives, who had examined the appliances. He testified that the furnace was “opened up … taking the protective covers off of it” to confirm the interior wiring was intact and unmelted. The water heater, Petraitis said, “was examined and was in the same condition as the furnace.” A visual examination of the family’s washer and dryer, he said, also showed no signs of malfunction. No further tests were done, even though the Buckner family had reported electrical problems to their landlord just weeks before – issues with fixtures and flickering lights.
Petraitis said these issues were unimportant to his investigation because they were not within the area of the fire’s origin.
“There are two very significant areas of burning and that is the rear basement and the other is the very top floor,” Petraitis said later in court. “This particular fire spread from the basement up through this balloon construction,” he said, describing the house’s framing style, “and broke out on the top floor, where it met with its first horizontal barrier.”
Petraitis said a walk through the area and final examination of the scene yielded more clues. To defense lawyers, these were nothing more than devastating remnants of the loss of everything a family owned:
• A rolled-up newspaper charred at one end was discovered in a litter-strewn vacant lot about 100 yards from 8361 Bricelyn Street.
• A metal, one-gallon, half-full gasoline can was found in the basement where it was stored with the family lawnmower.
• Agents sifting through debris in the family room discovered the Buckners’ newly purchased insurance policy.
• Burn patterns were found, indicating an accelerant, according to Petraitis.
• A police K9 dog sniffed out two sections of the basement where accelerants were suspected near the furnace and a metal cabinet where the Buckners stored their summer clothes.
Within hours of the fire – before these items were back from ATF’s national lab – Petraitis concluded that someone poured gasoline on the basement floor and lit it on fire.
By 5:30 a.m., a member of the Pittsburgh Arson Squad submitted a report making it official for that agency, too.
Later that month, ATF received word that two of 12 evidentiary samples tested positive for accelerant, which was about the time University of Maryland fire dynamics professor – and Petraitis mentor – Dr. James Quintiere examined the remains of the home. He also concurred the fire was the result of arson. Only an accelerated fire, and not an accidentally occurring one, would produce flames high enough to reach the ceiling.