Burning Injustice: Part One

Updated: April 25, 2008

Sandra Chapman/13 Investigates

Indianapolis - More than 2,000 fires were intentionally set in Indiana last year. The state fire marshal's office says it cannot determine how many of them were ruled as arson.

One Indiana man has a burning question: If your house caught fire, could you prove you didn't commit arson? Before you answer, you'll want to read about what 13 Investigates uncovered.

It's a case of burning injustice that is now sparking debate over how state fire investigators are doing their jobs.

In a small river town known to take a gamble, there is a smoldering burn of injustice. A midnight fire in April 2000 sent flames belching from Robin Montgomery's house and claimed everything he owned - including his freedom. 

"She [Jodi Gould] was screaming, hollering and pointing her finger saying I was the one that set the fire," said Rob Montgomery as he recounted the statements of his ex-girlfriend that night.

Montgomery is one of a growing number of arson suspects nationwide.  All are facing time, even death sentences, for fires science says are not arson.

Ohio County Prosecutor Aaron Negangard said there was good reason to charge Montgomery.  
"He was seen by an eyewitness leaving the house in somewhat of a rush," Negangard told 13 Investigates.  "There's no question in my mind that Rob Montgomery is guilty, however, as it sits now he is not," said Negangard.

"He thought he was God, and he got away with it," Montgomery counters, criticizing the prosecutor.

The ordeal began in 2000.  Montgomery was separated from his wife, and wanted his live-in girlfriend, Jodi Gould, to get out.

She left and went to a bar. Montgomery threw her clothes out on the back porch. Hours later the house erupted in flames.

Gould told police Montgomery called and threatened to burn his own house down. Montgomery denies the claim and no one else heard the allegation. 
It was up to a state fire investigator to sort out the fire facts.  

"At first I said everything is going to be all right. It's just, it's just a mistake, but as things progressed on it got worse," said Montgomery.

The investigator said two bedrooms were torched and that a burnt hole in the floor meant just one thing: accelerants. It's a theory technical fire experts now reject.

The state investigator also tossed out another potential culprit: a lamp.   

Montgomery's wife Norma takes issue with the handling of the arson investigation.  "He walked in there, shoveled a couple of things out the door, picked up some soil samples and wrote up a report saying it was arson," she said of State Fire Marshal Andy Long.

An arson determination was made despite 10 negative lab tests analyzed by the state crime lab and a damaged lamp cord Gould admits she caught in a vacuum cleaner the day of the fire.
 "The lamp had signs of energized melting.  And that means that the lamp cord burned from the inside out," explained Rob Montgomery.

An electrical engineer hired by the insurance company could not rule it out as a possible cause. 

Montgomery's attorney assumed the prosecutor would call the electrical engineer and a second insurance investigator as witnesses. He was wrong.   

13 Investigates asked Montgomery to recall the moment when the three guilty verdicts for arson, and fraud were read in court.

Through a well of tears, Montgomery said with a shaky voice, "I lost my family that day.  I didn't do this. And they're putting me in jail for it.   It's happening."

Robin Montgomery's sentence: 12 years with six suspended. The best he could hope for was three years served with good time.  

Montgomery house
A midnight fire in April 2000 sent flames belching from Robin Montgomery's house.

Robin Montgomery
Robin Montgomery

Norma Montgomery
Norma Montgomery

Prosecutor Aaron Negangard
Ohio County Prosecutor Aaron Negangard

lamp cord
An arson determination was made despite 10 negative lab tests analyzed by the state crime lab and a damaged lamp cord Gould admits she caught in a vacuum cleaner the day of the fire.
His darkest moment, he said, was his first day in prison.  

"The first day, going in, the things that they make you do. That was pretty hard on me. Things that I'm not going to talk about," he said shaking his head in continued disbelief.

Fourteen months passed, and then came the call the Montgomery's prayed for. In March 2004 the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed Robin Montgomery's conviction citing "ineffective assistance."  The Appeals Court also admonished the Ohio County Prosecutor for questionable conduct, stating that he "gave rise to the ineffectiveness claim."

In its ruling the Appellate Court wrote: Click here to read the full Opinion in MS Word.

"In this case, there was only circumstantial evidence of Montgomery's guilt. Indeed, what became essentially a 'battle of experts,' corroborating experty testimony would have been particularly powerful, and in its absence, when available, substantially prejudicial."

Norma Montgomery summed it up in simple terms.  "He did not get a fair trial," she said.

Prosecutor Negangard has his own explanation.  "They just felt that there should have been other evidence presented to the jury to make a fair decision," he told 13 Investigates.  "I never foresaw that me not calling these witnesses would cause such a hullabaloo," he added.

Robin Montgomery is free, but not in the clear. Negangard re-filed charges. Now eight years after the blaze, a new trial is set for May 13th.

13 Investigates asked Negangard why he is still pursuing charges.

"Well, because quite frankly the real victims of this were the men of the Rising Sun Volunteer Fire Department. They were called out to put out a fire that should have never been set," he said.

This time around, Indiana's fire investigation standards will face scrutiny too.

Montgomery now has a critically acclaimed scientist, Dr. Gerald Hurst,  backing him up. Hurst, a chemist, investigates arson cases nationwide.
"You don't have any evidence of arson," warned Hurst. "What you've got is this hocus pocus," he said, referring to the case against Rob Montgomery. 

Burning Injustice, Part Two

Truth in Justice