Part Six:
The expert's tests unlock the mystery of the fire's origin 
By ANNE SAKER, Staff Writer

     Before the Texans traveled to North Carolina the last weekend in March, Ken Gibson sent Terri Strickland e-mail to say he and Gerald Hurst, his friend of more than 20 years, were just down-home folks, really. In fact, Gibson wrote, Hurst would probably be wearing his "uniform," but she shouldn't be concerned.
     As Terri cleaned the house to receive her guests, she tried to conjure up an image of a Ph.D. in chemistry from Cambridge University. Even with Gibson's hint, she couldn't guess.
     But the man who walked up to the front door wasn't anyone's vision of a Deep Thinker. He cleared 6-foot-4 with a spare tire at his middle. His hair was gray-brown and wiry. And sure enough, he was in uniform: black sneakers, black socks, black shirt, bla ck sweat pants held up with black suspenders. In his pants pocket, he carried a red tin of snuff.
     "Hi, Terri," Hurst said, shaking her hand.
     Terri thanked the Texans over and over for coming such a long way on their own dime to help her. At that moment, Hurst could see in her face what not even five months of daily e-mail could convey -- the depth of her hope and trust. The obligation weighed on him.
     Unless Hurst could show that Terri did not set the Oct. 20, 1996, fire that killed her 17-month-old son, Joshua, a jury would be swayed by the findings of the State Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and two insurance i nvestigators. If the jury convicted Terri of first-degree murder, the attempted first-degree murder of her daughter, Brittany, and first-degree arson, she could end up on death row.

Joshua's crib, as seen on videotape shot by SBI Special Agent Matt White. Terri saw fire spread across the room's ceiling like the ocean upside down.
    The next morning, Terri's husband, Rodney Strickland, picked up the Texans and headed for the burned house at 101 Wall St. in Tabor City. Terri wanted nothing more in the world than to go along, too, but while she was on electronic house arrest, the only outing she was allowed on Mondays was to Josh's grave.
     She paced around the house, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, worrying. She heard the monitor for her ankle bracelet click. They were checking on her.
     At 1 p.m., she drove along the short lane between her mother's house and the cemetery. The oak trees were leafing out, the grass turning green. Terri cleaned up the trash around the short picket fence painted baby blue. She sat on the ground and told Josh she missed him.
    She was home by 3 p.m. The rest of the afternoon passed without a word from anyone.
     Finally, at suppertime, Rodney came home, grinning as big as Terri had ever seen. He sat at the kitchen table, lit a Tampa Nugget cigar and told her everything.
     Rodney got Hurst and Gibson to 101 Wall St. about 10 a.m., and they were met by the defense lawyers in their business suits. Matt White, the SBI special agent who had investigated the fire and arrested Terri, arrived to let the team into the house, then he sat in his government sedan until he could lock up. Rodney said White probably figured they'd be there an hour.
     The special agent sat outside all day.
    First, Hurst and Gibson gave the house a once-over. Rodney led them to the fuse box in a little room just off the kitchen.
     The men climbed the stairs to the second floor. The fire and smoke damage to Brittany's room was minor compared with the mess in Josh's bedroom, which was minimal compared with the devastation in the attic.
     As Hurst had seen in photographs, the fire had burned through the attic joists and rafters above the closet in Josh's bedroom, which indicated to Hurst that the fire not only had originated in the attic but had burned there for a long time, perhaps as lo ng as an hour.
     The wiring in the attic was as bad as Hurst and Gibson had feared: it appeared that the cloth-wrapped wires had not been upgraded since the house was built in 1935.
     Hurst grabbed a handful of the attic's cellulosic insulation -- old ground-up newspaper treated long ago with flame retardant -- and took it out into the yard. He put a match to it. The insulation smoldered, then caught fire.
     Hurst pointed out the burn patterns to the lawyers. The wall in the closet of Josh's bedroom had a V-shaped mark. The underside of the closet shelf was burned more deeply than the upper side. The gaping burned-out hole through the 1-inch pine tongue-and- groove in the closet ceiling revealed the old wires and the burned rafters.
     The SBI special agent, the BATF agent and the two insurance investigators who examined the house just after the fire had interpreted that pattern as indicating that the fire had started in the closet, then burned through the ceiling into the attic.
Staff Photo By Robert WillettThe conclusions of chemist Gerald Hurst contradicted the findings of the State Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and two insurance investigators.
  • Hurst investigative report: "Cursory official investigation, ... junk science ... perfunctory dismissal of wire arc ignition." (3/16/1998) 

  • Written for arson defendant Terri Hinson Strickland by Gerald L. Hurst, consulting chemist, of Austin, TX. 
    But Hurst believed the fire had started in the attic, and he read the pattern this way: The wire in the attic over the closet ceiling arced, igniting the insulation. The fire then ate through the ceiling and dropped to the closet floor. The fire burned u pward and created the V-shaped pattern, eliminating whatever marks it had made in burning down through the ceiling.
        In minutes, the fire consumed the oxygen in the closet and burst through the closet doors of half-inch plywood. Smoke filled the second floor, and Brittany began screaming.
         "Mommy! I'm scared! Mommy! I'm scared!"
         Standing at Josh's bedroom door, Terri saw flame roll across the ceiling like the ocean upside down. Josh lay in his crib. The heat and fire kept Terri from entering the room.
         The Tabor City volunteer fire department put out the blaze minutes after arriving.
         The defense team's examination of the house went straight through lunch. White sat in his government sedan, waiting.
         The time came to test Hurst's theory that he outlined in his report to the defense lawyers: The heater Terri used downstairs the night of the fire drew power off the same circuit as the wire over the closet ceiling, and the extra load on the old wiring t riggered an arc.
         It was not a sure thing. The line could go anywhere in the house. But the test had to be run.
         Since someone had cut the wire over the closet ceiling and removed it after the fire, Rodney brought some substitute wire to the house. Hurst sent Rodney and Gibson to the attic to splice the extra wire to one end of the old line. On Hurst's signal, they would attach the other end.
         Hurst then ran a lead wire from the downstairs outlet where the heater had been plugged in to the little room off the kitchen where the fuse box hung. He pulled out an ohm meter that he'd brought from home and wrapped the lead wire around an alligator cl ip at the end of the meter's black probe.
         Watch the meter, Hurst told the lawyers. If his theory was wrong, the needle would not move. If his theory was correct, the needle would move right to show that the electrical circuit was completed.
         Hurst inserted the meter's red probe into the fuse box.
         He yelled up to Gibson and Rodney in the attic.
         A second passed.
         Slowly, the needle on the ohm meter swung to the right.
         The lawyers shouted. Gibson and Rodney cheered. Hurst smiled.
         Terri laughed and clapped her hands when Rodney finished his story. When Hurst and Gibson dropped by later that evening, Terri thanked them over and over for what they had found.
         Would the prosecutor believe it?
         We'll see, Hurst said.
         Terri's lawyers picked April Fools' Day for the meeting with Lee Bollinger, the owlish prosecutor handling the case. A native of Robeson County and the father of five, Bollinger had earned his law degree from Campbell University. He was one of the chief felony prosecutors in the judicial district covering Bladen, Brunswick and Columbus counties.
         Bollinger had gone over his file and felt confident that he had a pretty good case against Terri, based on what White had told him. The prosecutor agreed to meet with the defense lawyers because he figured that, at the least, he'd get a look at their cas e and their experts. No down side there.
         The prosecutor reserved the grand jury room of the Columbus County courthouse for the meeting. At 10 a.m., the defense lawyers walked in with Gibson and Wyman Sox, the South Carolina electrician who had taken the photographs of the burned house.
         Behind them came a tall man dressed in black, suspenders holding up his sweat pants. To Bollinger, the man looked like Jerry Garcia.
         But Hurst dipped snuff, and that made him OK with the Columbus County boys.
         Bollinger closed the door, and the meeting began.
    Hurst Report
    Part Seven
    Terri's Fire
    Truth in Justice