Date: 3/18/2009

OSLO (AP) — Norwegian police say they have detained a man on suspicion of arson in an apartment building fire late last year that killed six people and injured 12 in Oslo.

The fire ripped through the five-story apartment building Dec. 13, and some residents had to be rescued from the roof with ladders. Police detained the man Wednesday but they declined to identify him other than to say he was Norwegian and in his 40s.

Police say the man was charged in connection with a series of fires, including the one in December. But authorities refused to go into detail because the investigation is continuing.

Police say they will seek a court order to keep him in custody.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

Date: 3/6/2009

CINCINNATI (AP) — Police say a student at a small Ohio college has been arrested on arson charges after several fires were set on the campus.

Police in the Cincinnati suburb of Delhi Township say 18-year-old Jordan Cullen was arrested Friday and charged with two counts of aggravated arson. It was not immediately clear whether Cullen had an attorney.

Authorities say Cullen set at least one of five small fires Thursday in two buildings at the College of Mount St. Joseph. She is a resident at the liberal arts college of 2,300 students.

The fires prompted evacuations on the campus. Officials report one person died, but the cause of death has not been determined.


Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer,

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

Date: 2/19/2009

COATESVILLE, Pa. (AP) — A 19-year-old was charged Thursday with setting at least seven fires in an arson-plagued steel town, including a block-long blaze that displaced dozens of people last month.

Roger Leon Barlow Jr., of nearby Downingtown, was charged with arson, aggravated assault and related counts. He was arraigned Thursday afternoon and his bail was set at $9 million.

Staff at the Downingtown district court where Barlow was arraigned said he did not have an attorney.

Barlow is a pyromaniac who liked to watch things burn, Chester County District Attorney Joseph Carroll told The Associated Press.

Coatesville, about 35 miles west of Philadelphia, has tallied 18 arsons this year and 26 last year, one of them fatal. Residents have said they are scared to go to bed at night for fear another fire will break out.

With a suspect under arrest, Carroll said residents should be able to sleep easier, “although I’m not convinced this is the only person involved.”

Carroll said Barlow set a fire late last month that tore through 15 row homes on a single block, displacing dozens of residents and causing an estimated $1.2 million in damage.

In December, authorities arrested three people believed to have been responsible for some of the arsons, including the early December blaze that killed an 83-year-old woman, but the fires continued.

Officials plan to release more details at a news conference later Thursday.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

Date: 2/19/2009

Associated Press Writer

WHITTLESEA, Australia (AP) — The electrician’s tools were incinerated, the trucker’s rig reduced to a useless, burned shell. The deadly wildfires that swept southern Australia destroyed more than lives — they destroyed livelihoods.

As the days since the Feb. 7 blazes wear on, the needs of the survivors grow more complex. Where basic tools of survival like water and food were once enough, residents of the devastated areas now need more: tools to rebuild their lives.

“My biggest point now is getting fathers back to work,” Marisa Pegoraro said Thursday from her chair inside a relief center she has frequented since she and her family narrowly escaped being burned alive in the inferno. “They have to feel like they’re looking after their families.”

As many as 7,500 people were left homeless by the fires that killed at least 208 people almost two weeks ago. These survivors are now living in tents, caravans, borrowed houses or with friends and family. They want to go home. Soon.

In the fire zone, the sound of chain saws felling scorched timber has replaced the rumble of fire trucks pumping water onto smoking ruins as emergency crews work to make the landscape safe for people to return.

The process of rebuilding lost homes is unlikely to begin for months and will take many years, but survivors want to feel that the process is moving forward and they need tools to help clear the rubble from their land and sift through the wreckage.

At Australia’s St. Vincent de Paul Society, a charity, requests are flooding in for wheelbarrows, generators and chain saws, spokeswoman Carol Taylor said.

“They’re going back into their communities,” Taylor said. “They’re wanting tools to clean up what’s left of their property.”

Charities in southern Victoria state have been inundated with donations from across the world since the worst wildfires this sun-blistered country has ever seen.

The disaster’s severity stunned Australia’s 21 million people, who sent more than 100 million Australian dollars ($64 million) to a government-backed Australian Red Cross fund in the first week, with the total still growing.

This week, the Salvation Army asked people to stop donating material goods, saying it has all it needs, though financial donations are still welcome.

Still, the donations pour in.

Dust rises into the sky as massive delivery trucks roll across the dry earth surrounding a relief center in Whittlesea, a donation hub for surrounding towns that were obliterated in the inferno. Warehouses, sporting fields and schools across the region are jammed with everything from jewelry and toiletries to cutlery and cars.

The Whittlesea relief center is piled high with boxes of food and crates of water, mountains of books and toys, stacks of linen and china. The most coveted item? Work boots.

“Initially, because the ground was still so hot and the ashes so deep in some places, they were just such a priority,” said volunteer Janine Morgan.

They are just as important now that families are getting down to the work of clearing the properties to start rebuilding.

Cleaning up the scraps is just one challenge. In tents at the relief center, the homeless can get counseling for grief and advice on how to lodge insurance claims. They can search a makeshift post office for their mail. Volunteer therapists offer massages and others a shampoo and blow-dry for dirty, dusty heads.

“In the first few days, everybody was quite shell-shocked and that’s started to wear off,” said Morgan, whose house was spared by a sudden wind change that pushed the flames away. “The reality sets in. It’s not pretty.”

Pegoraro, on one of what have become regular stops at the center, knows firsthand the sting of reality. The 47-year-old sits among the plastic tubs of donated clothes, her eyes welling with tears as she tells of her family’s narrow escape from death.

On that awful day, she and her husband covered their two children in wet blankets and hid them under a table in the garage as the flames roared through their home. They prayed. And then the house collapsed. Weak from smoke inhalation, the family fled outside and huddled in a paddock all night as the inferno raged around them.

In the aftermath, Pegoraro has not only sought help for her family but has also worked to help members of her razed town, Kinglake, get back on their feet.

One trucker who lost his rig in the blaze was going to have to wait six months until insurance paid for a new one, so she found a donor willing to lend him a replacement. She gathered tools so an electrician who lost everything could go back to work.

It is critical to get the displaced residents enough help to let them return to their properties, Pergoraro said. Children do not want to be relocated away from their friends, and adults need to stay close to their family and friends.

“We need to be here for each other,” she said. “And I think emotionally we need to be here for each other as well.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

Date: 2/15/2009

Associated Press Writer

WHITTLESEA, Australia (AP) — Australians mourning the lives lost in horrific wildfires last week sought comfort at churches Sunday even as firefighters continued to battle a dozen blazes still burning in the state.

Fire engines raced past the small, 140-year-old Christ Church in Whittlesea while the Archbishop of Melbourne was leading a service, their sirens briefly drowning out a song.

More than 180 people were killed and 1,800 homes destroyed when some 400 blazes — some thought to have been deliberately set — tore across Victoria state on Feb. 7 in Australia’s worst-ever wildfire disaster.

Across the 1,500-square mile (3,900-square kilometer) fire zone, residents and friends gathered at church services to pray for the dead. The scene was repeated at churches across the country.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd attended a service in the town of Wandong, where he joined residents in placing leaves and flowers into a bowl of water in a symbol of remembrance and rebuilding.

In Whittlesea, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of the state capital of Melbourne, Governor General Quentin Bryce joined about 200 people who overflowed into Christ Church’s yard for an hourlong service.

“You could feel the togetherness there,” Bryce said. “It will give people support and comfort in their grief.”

Police have arrested a man in connection with one of the fires and he will appear in court Monday to face charges of arson causing death, intentionally lighting a wildfire, and possessing child pornography. His identity is being concealed by the court because of the risk of reprisal attacks against him or his family.

One other fire, which nearly destroyed the village of Marysville, is also being investigated as arson.

In another blaze, which destroyed Kinglake, fire victims have launched a class action lawsuit against power supplier SP Ausnet, arguing that downed power lines sparked and set fire to a nearby pine forest.

“We stand ready to assist the relevant authorities with their inquiries if it is necessary for us to do so,” SP Ausnet spokeswoman Louisa Graham said in a statement.

Victoria Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon said Sunday that police were aware of the reported class action suit. She declined to answer directly when asked if police had removed a section of power line and a power pole as evidence.

“At this stage we are not able to confirm how it started,” Nixon told Nine Network television. “I understand there is some legal action that people are taking, but at this stage we’re still investigating its cause.”

Visitors from outside the fire-ravaged area also attended church services in the fire zone Sunday to show support for the families affected by the disaster.

“I didn’t know anybody directly affected by the fires, but this is something that’s touched the hearts of everybody,” said Sharyn Mitzzi, who drove up from Melbourne with her husband, Raymond.

They heard the vicar on the radio last week and decided to come to Whittlesea to offer their home to an affected family for a weekend respite.

Whittlesea has become a center for relief efforts for neighboring towns such as Kinglake, where scores of people died and which was almost completely destroyed.

An outpouring of charity has raised more than 90 million Australian dollars ($60 million) in donations to official relief funds.

Community Services Minister Jenny Macklin announced Sunday that families whose homes were destroyed would get a AU$10,000 cash payment to start the rebuilding process. The federal and Victoria government have promised millions of dollars more and say a comprehensive rebuilding strategy will be released later this week.

Wildfires are common each Australian summer, when tinder-dry forests ignite in hot and windy conditions and can burn for weeks on end. Government researchers say the causes of up to half the 60,000 fires in Australia each year are suspicious, with non-suspect causes being lightning strikes, power line mishaps and human activity such as sparks from power tools.

Firefighters, including specialists flown in from the United States, continued to battle about a dozen blazes in Victoria, and a pall of dark smoke hung over a huge area, including Melbourne.

Cooler, even wet conditions were allowing firefighters to make good progress in containing the fire, the Country Fire Association said.

In Whittlesea, volunteer firefighter Jeff Rowden, 45, said Sunday’s church service brought solace to his brigade.

“I think it’s good to be around people who shared the same thing and know what you’ve been through, so we can get back to our normal lives,” Rowden said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

Date: 2/14/2009

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (AP) — Ten people who built a campfire won’t be charged with igniting a wildfire last fall that destroyed more than 200 homes in Santa Barbara and neighboring Montecito, prosecutors said Friday.

Santa Barbara County District Attorney Christie Stanley said investigators could not prove who caused the wildfire that blackened more than 65 square miles and destroyed rows of multimillion-dollar homes, including actor Christopher Lloyd’s $11 million home in Montecito. Two people were seriously injured in the blaze.

Investigators had found evidence that the campfire was lit in Montecito about 14 hours before the wildfire erupted Nov. 13, but prosecutors concluded they could not establish who started the wildfire.

“Unfortunately, that’s not an unusual result,” said Santa Barbara County Fire Capt. Eli Iskow, whose department helped investigate the cause of the fire.

Stanley said the people who lit the campfire would be charged with misdemeanor trespassing and unlawfully building and using a campfire without permission.

The two misdemeanor counts carry a maximum penalty of a year in county jail, up to a $1,000 fine and three to five years of probation, Stanley said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

Date: 2/14/2009

Associated Press Writer

SYDNEY (AP) — Outrage over the Australian wildfires that killed more than 180 people last week was white hot after police said some of the blazes may have been deliberately set.

The prime minister said the culprits should “rot in jail,” and government officials threatened the maximum charge: murder.

But experts note the difficulty of proving a link between the act of striking a match and causing a death.

Police on Friday charged a man with one count of arson causing death and intentionally lighting a wildfire near the town of Churchill that killed at least 21 people. The official death toll from the fires that raged through southeastern Victoria state Feb. 7 is 181, but officials expect the tally to exceed 200.

Wildfires burn annually in places with hot summers where people live near wooded areas — Australia, California, Spain, France. Foul play is also common.

A report last month by the Australian Institute of Criminology concluded about half the 60,000 wildfires each year are either deliberately set or suspicious.

Few arrests are made, and even fewer convictions secured.

One major complication is that wildfires often merge, making it difficult to link an arson fire with the blaze that eventually kills people, said Damon Muller, who has researched arsonists for the institute.

“If someone starts a fire and that joins to another fire, how responsible is that person?” Muller said.

In such cases, prosecutors generally call in experts who examine the burn damage to determine where two blazes join and their direction, said Thomas Fee, former president of the Maryland-based International Association of Arson Investigators.

But experts for the defense could easily testify that the defendant’s fire alone wouldn’t have been enough to hurt anyone, Fee said.

Also tricky is proving that an arsonist either intended to kill someone or inflict grievous bodily harm, Muller said.

Others say it can be done.

“It’s not as difficult as you think,” said Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Jean Daly, who spent nine years prosecuting arson cases in California.

Under California law, arson can qualify as felony murder, which allows for a murder charge against a defendant who doesn’t intend harm.

One man, Raymond Lee Oyler, is currently on trial in California for allegedly setting a 2006 wildfire that killed five firefighters. He has pleaded not guilty to 45 counts including murder and arson and faces the death penalty if convicted.

Harder than proving a murder charge in a wildfire arson is convincing a jury the defendant committed arson in the first place, Daly said.

“You have to establish the links,” she said.

That task falls to investigators, who first hunt out eyewitnesses, said Ross Brogan, a former New South Wales state fire investigator and a fire investigation lecturer at Australia’s Charles Sturt University.

Finding the fire’s source depends on determining where it started. To do that, Brogan said, investigators interview firefighters who can detail the intensity of the flames, and study weather data to determine wind direction — both of which help investigators track the fire to its source.

The major problem is that physical evidence often burns up — or is removed by the arsonists themselves, Fee said.

“For a long number of years, they said that arson was the hardest crime to prove,” Fee said. “If you don’t have an eyewitness to this, it all becomes circumstantial evidence — and the more you try to convict on circumstantial evidence, the tougher it gets.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

Date: 2/13/2009

Associated Press Writer

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Authorities charged a man Friday with lighting one of the wildfires that killed more than 180 people in Australia, and whisked him into protective custody to guard him from public fury.

Police said the suspect was charged with one count of arson causing death and intentionally lighting a wildfire near the town of Churchill that killed at least 21 people. It was one of hundreds of fires that raged through southeastern Victoria state Feb. 7, leaving 7,000 people homeless and razing entire towns.

The suspect also was charged with possessing child pornography.

The disaster’s official death toll is 181, but efforts to find and identify victims were continuing and officials expected the final tally to exceed 200. More than 1,800 homes and 1,500 square miles (3,900 square kilometers) of forests and farms were burned.

The suspect’s identity was being kept secret for his own safety, Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Dannye Moloney told a news conference. He was brought to the state capital of Melbourne from Morwell, 75 miles (120 kilometers) to the east and near the town of Churchill.

“We have a very emotive environment out there,” Moloney said. “If we left a person there it would only be a situation where the people may go to where they believe him to be held and I don’t think they need the trauma.”

Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported from Morwell that the suspect was formally charged in the town’s magistrate’s court, but that he did not appear. He was ordered to be held in custody and to undergo psychiatric evaluation, the broadcaster said.

Police said in a statement that Magistrate Clive Allsop banned publication of any details or photographs of the man that could identify him. Another court hearing was scheduled for Monday.

If found guilty, the man faces a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison for the deadly arson charge, and a maximum of 15 years on the second arson charge.

Police have said they believe foul play was the cause of at least two of the deadly blazes, including the Churchill fire. Those suspicions disgusted the country and prompted Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to describe the fires as possible mass murder.

Verbal abuse was hurled at a van seen leaving the courthouse in Morwell that people apparently believed the suspect was in, Australian Associated Press reported.

“If this person is not insane, then I think he should be in jail for a very long time,” said Gavin Wigginton, whose home was destroyed in the Churchill fire. “If he’s culpable, if he’s all there, he must have known that this was going to kill people and that clearly is murder.”

Ruth Halyburton, whose home in the town of Marysville was burned to the ground, said she could not comprehend why anyone would want to light wildfires.

“Words can’t describe how I feel about them,” Halyburton told The Associated Press at a relief center in nearby Alexandra. “I’m a Christian, but I don’t think to kindly of people if they go light a match and destroy people’s property and lives. They don’t have a brain in their head.”

But experts say arson can be very hard to prove. Physical evidence usually goes up in smoke or is taken away by arsonists, said Thomas Fee, a former president of the Maryland-based International Association of Arson Investigators in the U.S.

Even more difficult to prove is murder by arson. Wildfires often join one another, making it tough to link a fire set by an arsonist with the blaze that eventually kills people, said Damon Muller, who has researched arsonists for the Australian Institute of Criminology.

Marysville, a town of some 500 people, was almost completely destroyed Saturday by one of the fires — but not the Churchill blaze.

Firefighters still struggled to contain about a dozen blazes and one of them flared up Friday and menaced the town of Healesville, coming within less than a mile (1 kilometer) and sending embers dropping like rain over houses.

The threat was downgraded after a few hours, but it served as a reminder that the disaster may not be over yet.

“You can’t see anything. All you can see is smoke, and you can’t even see where the fire is actually coming from,” plant nursery owner John Stanhope told ABC radio from Healesville during the flare-up. “It’s just thick smoke everywhere and everyone is just very much on edge.”

Firefighters raced to take advantage of cooler weather, rain and lighter winds and lit controlled burns Friday in efforts to prevent further breakouts.

The catastrophe’s scale became clearer Friday. Officials raised the tally of destroyed homes by 762 to 1,831, and the number of people left homeless or who fled their homes and have not returned was raised by 2,000 to 7,000.

Officials said the nation had pledged more than 75 million Australian dollars ($50 million) in donations to various charities for survivors. Rudd ordered military bases to be opened to house some of the homeless.

The disaster increased the urgency for a nationwide fire warning system, which has been snarled for years in bickering between state and federal officials.

“I am determined to see this thing implemented across the nation,” Rudd said late Thursday. “If it means cracking heads to ensure it happens we’ll do that.”

Officials partly blamed the dramatic death toll on the number of people who appeared to have waited until they saw the fast-moving blazes coming before trying to flee. Many bodies were found in burned-out cars.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

Date: 1/12/2009

Associated Press Writer

BOSTON (AP) — For nearly a decade, Kathleen Hilton has been in jail, though she’s been convicted of nothing.

Prosecutors say the grandmother set a fire that killed five people, including three young girls, because she was allegedly angry her son’s ex-girlfriend wouldn’t let him see his two kids.

Her trial is set to begin Tuesday on murder and arson charges after an extraordinary delay while her lawyer fought to keep the jury from hearing an alleged confession she made after the Feb. 24, 1999, blaze in a Lynn triple-decker.

Her grandchildren survived, but the blaze killed another family in the building.

Hilton, now 62, has spent most of the last decade at MCI-Framingham, a medium-security women’s prison where she works in the kitchen and watches television, said her attorney, Michael Natola.

In Massachusetts, it usually takes one to two years for murder cases to go to trial.

“Ten years is aberrational,” said Michael Cassidy, a professor at Boston College Law School. “Sometimes, complex murder cases can take two or three years to get to trial but 10 years is well beyond the average.”

Natola said he had to push for the statements to be suppressed — no matter how long it took. The case twice went to the Supreme Judicial Court.

“There were two competing constitutional rights at work here — her right to a speedy trial and her right to a fair trial by virtue of having unlawfully taken statements suppressed,” he said.

Ultimately, the jury at Hilton’s trial will be allowed to hear portions of her statements to police, including her claim she started the fire by pouring scented oil on the wooden stairway and lighting it with a cigarette. She allegedly said she hoped that if her son’s girlfriend, Krystina Sutherland, had nowhere to live, she and the two children would return to her son, Charles Loayza, then 22.

But jurors won’t be allowed to hear a statement she allegedly made to a court officer after her arraignment: “My son, I hope he forgives me. I could have killed my grandchildren.”

Natola claims Hilton made the statements to try to protect her son, who had threatened to burn down the house and was initially the prime suspect in the fire. Police later verified her son’s alibi for the night of the fire.

“She was trying to cover up for her son,” he said.

Natola said Hilton had a close relationship with her grandchildren.

“It makes absolutely no sense that a person who was almost obsessively concerned with her grandkids would go ahead and set the house on fire where they lived,” he said.

Sutherland and the two children escaped their second-floor apartment. The first-floor occupants also got out safely. But the five people who lived on the third floor all died of smoke inhalation.

Killed were: Heriberto Feliciano, 34; his wife, Sonia Hernandez, 32; their daughters, Sonia, 12, and Maria, 13; and their niece, Glorimar Santiago, 11. The couple had moved to the mainland United States from their native Puerto Rico about 12 years earlier. Attempts to reach relatives in Puerto Rico were unsuccessful.

Sutherland, who is now married and lives in Lynn, is expected to be a key witness for prosecutors. She did not return a call seeking comment. It is unclear whether Loayza will be called to testify. Natola said Hilton has not seen him in years and does not know where he is.

Natola said he will also argue that Hilton made the statements involuntarily. Shortly after her arrest, she was found incompetent to stand trial after she said her cell was “haunted” and she saw “spirits.” But later, psychiatrists deemed her competent, meaning she could understand the charges against her and assist her attorney with her defense.

Cassidy, the law professor, said the passage of a decade could hurt the prosecution’s case.

“The longer the time passes between the event and the trial, the more likely witnesses can get sick, die, move, come to court but have failed memories, get into trouble themselves … that’s where it’s a real risk for the government to wait this long.”

Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett said the delay was unavoidable.

“We would have liked to have tried the case sooner, but we respect the process and the defendant’s rights,” he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

Date: 11/18/2008

Associated Press Writer

A soldier’s wife has been charged with setting a fire at their Kentucky Army base home that killed her two young children.

Billi Jo Smallwood, 35, also faces a federal charge of attempting to destroy a residential facility for members of the U.S. Army that caused the death of two minors, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced Tuesday.

The May 2007 fire at Fort Campbell killed 9-year-old Sam Fagan and 2-year-old Rebekah Smallwood, and injured her husband, Army Spc. Wayne Smallwood. The Smallwoods’ infant daughter, Nevaeh, was not injured.

Billi Smallwood, of Brunswick, Ga., who is in federal custody, could face execution or life in prison if convicted. She does not have an attorney, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney said.

The fire broke out in a two-story housing unit where six families lived in a housing development called Lee Village that dates to the 1940s and was in the process of being torn down. About 10,000 family members live in housing on the sprawling base that straddles the Tennessee-Kentucky state line, according to the most recent Fort Campbell fiscal report.

The federal grand jury indictment said Smallwood planned to set the fire with the intention of causing a person’s death. The U.S. attorney did not say who she was targeting and the full indictment was not yet available.

Cathy Gramling, a spokeswoman for Fort Campbell, said Smallwood’s husband is still assigned to the base but had no further comment.

Dawn Masden, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Paducah, said Smallwood was scheduled to appear for a hearing Tuesday afternoon, but was unsure if a judge would decide then whether she would remain in custody.

She also has an arraignment scheduled before a U.S. magistrate judge on Dec. 10.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.