Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Critics protest insurance industry role in arson investigations

By Rich Cholodofsky
Sunday, October 16, 2005

Paul Camiolo faced the death penalty in a 1996 arson that killed his parents.

The Montgomery County software engineer, who was later exonerated, said his case shows that arson investigations often are at the mercy of insurance companies set on getting out from under a major claim.

"This happens regularly," said Camiolo. "I know they're not properly investigated. It's sad that there are cases all throughout this country where insurance companies function as police in a district attorney's case."

Local investigators, state fire marshals and agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives all conduct arson probes. In some cases, investigations are a joint effort.

There is also an increasing trend in which law enforcement relies on evidence collected by investigators hired by insurance companies.

Some states, including Pennsylvania, have laws that require insurance investigators to share findings with police. Pennsylvania goes a step further and accepts payment from the insurance industry to fund arson investigations.

The money, collected from a tax added to insurance premiums, is paid into a central account administered by the Pennsylvania Insurance Fraud Prevention Authority. The authority issues about $300,000 in grants each year to fire investigative units.

Critics charge the system is improper.

"Insurance companies are in business not to pay claims. This creates a conflict of interest when they finance investigative positions," said Sheila Berry, director of the Richmond, Va.-based Truth in Justice, a nonprofit watchdog organization.

The insurance industry, though, defends its active role, saying arson is a leading source of fraud.

In Camiolo's case, records show the fire started in the living room, where his mother was sleeping on a sofa. Camiolo escaped the blaze that killed his father and, several months later, his mother.

State Farm Insurance Co. investigators initially ruled the cause as "careless smoking," but Upper Moreland Township police then charged Camiolo with setting it.

In January 1999, 20 months after the fire, a Montgomery County investigative grand jury recommended Camiolo be charged with homicide and arson after determining the fire was set through the use of a flammable liquid.

State Farm conducted a separate probe and hired a private firm, Robert H. Jones Associates Inc., which found the fire was "intentionally set and accelerated by the use of gasoline." State Farm refused to pay a claim on the home and the findings were used as evidence against Camiolo.

Ultimately, a private expert hired by Camiolo found that lab samples of hardwood floor in the home contained gasoline and lead, a component of gasoline prior to the early 1980s. The charges against him were dropped.

Because arson is often a crime with few eyewitnesses, investigators say making arrests and successfully prosecuting suspects can be difficult. The numbers bear that out, according to a Tribune-Review analysis of arson-related statistics compiled by the FBI and the National Fire Administration.

Records show only about one in 10 intentionally set fires results in a criminal conviction. And in Pennsylvania, prosecutors have a 23 percent conviction rate for arson offenses over the last three years, compared to 40 percent for homicides, state police said.

It is worse at the federal level, records show. In 2002, the last year for which numbers are available, federal prosecutors dropped more than half of the government's arson cases before trial.

"If you don't have anyone taking a picture of the guy doing it, you may have a problem," said John Decker, a law professor at DePaul University in Chicago.

Decker and a colleague, Bruce L. Ottley, authored one of the top guides for arson prosecutions. "The Investigation and Prosecution of Arson" said that arson investigations hinge on scientific evidence and complicated reconstruction of charred remains.

"Sometimes it's not the evidence of the fire but other evidence that's not there that determines if it is an arson," said Eric Leksell, a private fire investigator with ARCCA Inc. of Pittsburgh. The lack of evidence of an accident -- such as faulty wiring -- is also likely to lead investigators to rule a fire arson.

Evidence is often destroyed by flames, water or structural damage when burned buildings cave in or collapse. As time passes during an investigation, weather damage can be a factor.

Arson investigators look for signs of accelerants that could fuel a fire. Tell-tale signs of accelerants are what investigators call "pour patterns," or indentations on a surface to indicate where a substance was spilled to ignite a blaze.

"It's like leaving a fingerprint behind," Leksell said.

Rich Cholodofsky can be reached at rcholodofsky@tribweb.com or (724) 830-6293.

Truth in Justice