Putting out the fires

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The Columbus Division of Fire fights flames and the damage they cause, not only by extinguishing those ablaze, but also by finding patterns in those they have put out.

Josh Brent, a member of the Columbus Division of Fire Arson Investigation Unit explained that catching an arsonist relies mainly on looking at the remains of a fire and its surroundings to determine the cause.

“Usually serial arsonists have a way of setting fires and they stick with it,” Brent said at the Hadly Avenue Block Watch meeting held at Hoge Memorial Church on May 8.

Brent and Captain Jeff Happ represented the investigation unit in light of National Arson Awareness Week.

“Setting fires within a one-mile radius is another proven arson habit,” said Brent.

When both symptoms appeared in relation to reported garage and vacant home fires that began springing up in the Hilltop area in March of 2007, investigators suspected the work of a serial arsonist.

“We don’t get a lot (of arsonists), but when we do, they’re real,” said Brent.

Investigators found that the person responsible for igniting the fires was using whatever he could get – papers, towels, trash – and sliding it between garage doors.

“It would take three to four times sometimes, but once the fires got started, it was like a torch,” said Brent.

Investigators found a person of interest in August – a man who frequently walked alleyways in the area between 1 and 5 a.m. – for whom they set up a 24-hour surveillance.

Brent said that the Hilltop Arsonist, as he came to be nicknamed, knew and lived in the area, which contributed to his initial success in igniting fires without suspicion.

After days of vigilant watch, investigators arrested Duane R. Smith, 48, of 60 N. Harris Ave. in connection with over two dozen fires in the Hilltop area.

Smith later pled guilty in March of 2008 to three felony counts each of aggravated arson and arson and spent 231 days in prison before a Franklin County judge suspended Smith’s six year sentence on May 9, giving him three years of probation.

Common Pleas Judge Stephen L. McIntosh also ordered Smith to pay $44,600 in restitution to his victims and undergo counseling for alcohol and drug abuse.

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