NEW LONDON – The idea was sparked during the summer of 2020 by the need to respond to a significant number of cars that were deliberately set on fire and left to burn on the city streets.
Given the challenges to making arrests and securing convictions for arson cases, Fire Marshal Vern Skau decided he needed to find a more efficient way to handle the investigations.
Instead of calling in whichever police officer was available at the time of a suspicious fire — the department’s routine response — Skau formed a dedicated team of fire inspectors and police officers to solve the crimes.
“We had a series of car fires that were intentionally set and a lot of them were on overlapping shifts, so there was always different patrol officers and different supervisors involved,” Skau said in an interview at city fire headquarters on Bank Street. “The number of people involved in the cases was almost untenable. So we sat down and said there’s got to be a more efficient way to do this.”
A department-wide email sent to recruit police officers interested in the assignment drew a robust response, and resulted in Detective Melissa Schafranski-Broadbent and Master Patrol Officer Richard Cable being tapped to work with Skau and Fire Inspector David Heiney.
Both police officers had backgrounds in fire investigations. Cable is a longtime volunteer firefighter in his hometown of Waterford and Schafranski-Broadbent earned a degree in fire and emergency management at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
Schafranski-Broadbent has also taken a 160-hour training course from the state fire marshal making her a certified fire inspector, which Cable is in the process of completing.
Everyone who spoke to CT Examiner said that consistently working together on cases has produced a synergy and seamlessness in their investigations that has resulted in about 70 percent of their cases concluding in an arrest and/or conviction.
That so-called case “clearance rate” is more than triple the typical national average, and led to the team being recognized last month with an Outstanding Accomplishment Award from the Connecticut Chapter of the International Association of Arson Investigators.
“It’s a total team concept and we’re all on the same page,” Skau said. “I know how Rich thinks and I know how Melissa thinks and they know how Dave and I think. It’s amazing what people with the same mindset and the same passion can accomplish.”
The award also cited the team’s Juvenile Fire Setter program, which screens young people involved with fire through a mental health evaluation, fire-setting history and recommendations for diagnosis and treatment.
Having a dedicated police officer at the scene of a fire allows Skau and Heiney to concentrate on determining the cause and origin of the fire, while the officers explore any possible criminal involvement by interviewing witnesses and other means such as looking for any surveillance cameras in the area that may shed light on the circumstances of the fire.
“It might look like a mundane fire but then things can develop and you find out there’s a back story,” such as a dispute that led to the blaze, Cable said. “And we have an ability to put together a stronger case because we are seeing it from beginning to end.”
The team typically investigates about 40 suspicious fires a year.
One of its more complex investigations was a November 2020 fire at a waterfront house that killed Tony Hsieh, the founder and former CEO of the online shoe and clothing retailer Zappos, who later became known for his erratic behavior and drug use.
Hsieh’s death and the mysterious cause of the fatal fire in an attached shed where he had locked himself drew international attention.
After two months of investigation, the team came up with four likely scenarios as to the cause of the fire, which remains classified as “undetermined.”
Their report cited possible causes as misuse of candles, discarded tobacco and marijuana cigarettes, a portable propane heater, or a “careless or even intentional” act by Hsieh.
The team also learned that Hsieh had buried his dog in the home’s backyard a few days earlier, and had a fight with a “significant other” just hours before the blaze.
Skau declined to discuss the case in detail, but described it as “just like any other investigation,” despite the worldwide spotlight it put on the team.
He stressed that the team’s success so far would not have been possible without the support of city Fire Chief Thomas Curcio and Police Chief Brian Wright, who was instrumental in getting the team installed in his previous role as captain in charge of the detective bureau.
“Forming this partnership allows for a much cleaner and quicker process as far as chain of custody of evidence and obtaining arrest warrants,” Curcio said.
Wright called the team’s work “an extraordinary partnership built on extraordinary diligence and effort.”
“I think we truly got it right with this,” he said. “I see nothing but good things for the city coming out of this collaboration”