It Can't Happen To You ~ Or Can It?
An Open Letter from Pat Frost

On Aug. 18, 1983 I graduated from the Nursing Course at the Atlantic County V.T.S. in New Jersey.  I passed my State Board exam the following October.  I was an active nurse in Atlantic County until 1996. 

Following the horrible death of my 24 year-old son in a construction accident in June 1995 in Atlantic City, I could no longer deal with nursing. 

My husband and I both thought it would a good idea if I opened a business to help me cope with my son's death and to keep me from going insane.  I had been crafting jewelery since 1975, and in July 1996 I started a small business, making and selling hand-made jewelery.

In October 1996 I was in a very bad car accident that left me with permanent, serious respiratory problems.

Being a strong- mined, persevering person, I continued with my business despite the new injuries.  In November, I accepted a lease offer from the owners of the Historic Village of Smithville and opened a quaint little shop there three months later 

The entire village, including my shop, was in desperate need of repairs.  My husband and I did a lot of work to get the shop in condition for the opening in February 1997.  As I settled into the new business, I made a list of urgently needed repairs for the landlords.  The list included problems with waterfall leaks in the roof and walls of the back work room and adjacent closet, receptacles that intermittently failed to work, damaged window glazing, rotted wood inside and outside the building, peeling and faded paint, repeatedly tripped breakers, etc. 

On February 2, 1998, I opened my store as usual, but when I went behind my showcases to turn on the lights, I smelled a very slight odor of smoke. I didn't think anything of it. I sold potpourri that created a pronounced aroma in my store. Around 1:00 pm, a customer wanted to see some jewelry in the showcase.  When I went behind the showcase I could smell smoke again.  After the customer left, I opened the nearby closet door and immediately detected a much more distinct odor of smoke.  I shined a floodlight in the closet but saw nothing unusual.

When the maintenance came into my store on other business, I asked him to please go into my closet and tell me if he smelled anything.  He said he smelled something but couldn't make it out, adding that  he “had a bad sniffer.”  I then told him that I smelled smoke. He replied that both fireplaces were burning in the nearby inn, and maybe that's what I was smelling.  I assumed he was probably right and didn't think about it anymore.

I closed the store at about 6:05 pm. I was home only a short time when a call came in from my landlord. He told me I had to come back because there was a fire at my store, and to bring a lock because they had to break down the door to get in.  When I got to the shop, I was deeply shocked by what I saw.  There were seven fire trucks and three ambulances at the scene, and the whole place was lit up like Yankee Stadium. My store was engulfed in flames. 

The next morning, the arson team from the Atlantic County Prosecutor's office came in to do an investigation.  In NJ, this team is always called in when a mercantile license is involved.  The team spent around 6 to 7 hours in my store. When they were done, Seargent. Hackett came out and explained to me, the landlord, the adjuster for the insurance company, the public adjuster I had hired, my mother and my friend exactly how the team determined this fire to be an electrical accident. He said that panel box in the adjacent store shorted out and shot a surge of electricity into my water cooler, causing it to explode into flames.  Seargent. Hackett than said to the adjuster from my insurance company that they were done and “if you want to bring your people in you can.”  The police team gathered their equipment, took down the caution tape and left.  

The following week, an investigator from my insurance company came in to investigate for subrogation claims.  We later  learned from the grand jury transcript that he was approached by my landlord,  who falsely reported that I was 3 months behind on my rent.  The only money not paid to the landlord for those three months was the maintenance fee, which I was witholding pending resolution of the dispute over lack of performance.in making necessary repairs. He also quoted gossip from another store owner who had told him that I had announced that I was going to torch my store, not once or twice, but 10 times.  

On Feb.18th I was called to the prosecutor’s office to give a statement.  On Sept.14th, 1998 I was arrested for second-degree aggravated arson, 2 counts of arson and 2 counts of insurance fraud.

I was offered several “deals,” including PTI (pretrial intervention) and subsequently several lesser criminal charges, all of which I adamantly refused.  My proposal for dismissal was denied.  Neither of the two investigators from the prosecutor’s office would admit that they ever declared that my fire was electrical or accidental before the insurance companies intervened. 

One evening, my husband and I watched the Terri Hinson story on 48 hours.  It was like watching on TV what happened to me, only worse because Terri's son had perished in the fire.  Right after the show, I told my husband I was going to try to contact the same arson expert, Dr. Gerald Hurst, who had helped Terri to see if he could help me.  I found his email address and sent a message explaining my situation to him.  He responded immediately and told me to have my attorney contact him, and to tell the attorney “It won't cost him anything but the phone call.”  

We sent Dr. Hurst copies of everything including a video tape of a scale model of my store. 

Two years after the fire, I went to court for a trial, 10 days of testimony by about 30 prosecution witnesses, including a number of experts from the state and two insurance companies.  Fortunately, our attorney was an intelligent and likable professional who had been well tutored by our expert in the technical side of the case.  One by one the state’s witnesses crumbled under cross-examination.  My attorney put on only three witnesses, including Dr. Hurst.   

The jury deliberated only 35 minutes before returning a verdict of NOT GUILTY ON ALL COUNTS.  

Dr. Hurst stayed with us for the 3 weeks required to prepare for and try the case.  We thank him, and may God Bless him. 

My future goal is to get a law passed that allows defendants or their attorneys to be present during a grand jury hearing.  In most states, the prosecutors are permitted to tell the grand jury whatever it takes to get an indictment.  It's not JUSTICE and it’s NOT FAIR that only one side gets to be heard without checks and balances against inaccuracies and untruths.  I intend to do what ever it takes to change the kangaroo-court procedures of grand juries.  

Police officers and prosecution witnesses take an OATH to tell the truth. Guess what folks, THEY DON'T always honor that oath.  I will be sending a copy of everything pertaining to my case to the Attorney General’s office and to the Governor of this state.

My STRONG advice to anyone who is in a situation like mine is to STAND FIRM and FIGHT to the END, no matter WHAT.  Walk softly and carry a big expert.

Sincerely Yours,

Pat Frost      
 

Arson
Truth in Justice