By Edmund J. Pankau
Pankau Consulting


Arson is one of the most difficult criminal cases to prove in a court of law because of the many elements needed to prove the points of the crime. Not only must the arson in-vestigator prove that the basis of the fire was not from natural causes, he must also tie the individual facing trial to the crime itself.


In both our criminal and civil courts, the judges and jury are requiring investigators to prove up a reason or motive for the crime as part of the proof of the crime itself. To satisfy these requirements, the contemporary arson investi-gator must understand the basics of business and finance and use this knowledge as an investigative tool in his arson case. How? (This is where those college business courses come in handy).


The Iocation of witnesses and the production of financial records are the primary proof of the motive for economic crime. Those persons who have conducted business with the accused often have a detailed knowledge of the business activity and financial status of the accused and can be brought to describe this condition in a way which can counter the testimony of the accused.


As the arson investigator conducts his "cause and origin" investigation, he should be alert for any books, records and business documents which may have been left at the fire scene. Frequently, these records are salvageable es-pecially if tightly packed in cartons and stored in a corner.


Both during and after the fire scene search, the arson in-vestigator should interview neighbors for business back-ground and potential witness information. These witnesses may have some information concerning the background of the subject or of the events immediately preceding the fire.


Once a solid basis for arson has been established, the in-vestigator should begin his civil records search at the county court house to determine the background and financial status of his subject. The investigator should search the following records to obtain a complete business picture of his accused.


Past criminal charges, indictments, and convictions that may relate to previous arsons, burglaries or financially related crimes. Also look for D.W.I. and drug arrests to show instability of subject.


The county and district clerk's offices records filings of all lawsuits for other than criminal charges. Subject may have a history of bad checks, divorce, or pending financial lawsuits for non-payment of business debts. Investigators should obtain copies of all such charges and contact the plaintiffs to determine the basis and status of these suits.


Business security are interests recorded to verify loans made to the borrowing party. U.C.C.1s docu-ment the collateral assigned to the lending institution and the liens, judgments and other financial encumbrances listed to your subject.


Judgments and tax liens are filed here to record debts obtained in civil suits and tax liens. Judg-ment records may show that the accused has had other business names and debts and has a history of business failures.


Search to determine if subject or accused has any other assumed name filings which may indicate business other than the one involved in the fire. Fre-quently, arsonists transfer their business inventory to a new store or location immediately before the fire. (Also look under their spouses' married and maiden names for new business filings.)


If a civil records search proves successful, then the in-vestigator should contact the subject's suppliers to deter-mine the status of the payables and to verify the amount of inventory shipped to the accused in recent months. The in-vestigator should also request any recent financial statements submitted to the creditor by the accused so that they may be compared against records submitted by the subject himself. Any exculpable statements made by the subject to his creditors should be documented (i.e., "So sue me, I'm going bankrupt anyway.")


Of all financial witnesses, the accusedes' bank officer should be considered as the foremost source. The banker will have a detailed history of business loans and the financial history of the accused. The investigator should request or subpoena all recent bank statements and loan application records to determine if business deposits were made immediately in the weeks preceding the fire and if the bank had been contacted regarding outstanding bad checks and debts of the accused. This banker may also have a list of payables and receivables submitted by the accused as a basis for business loans.


In the continuing search for missing witnesses, the investigator should not overlook former
employees of the subject of the investigation. Every effort should be made to determine the names of these employees (I find that one of the best sources is the state employment commission). As the employer, the accused must make federal and state tax payments for employees each pay period. The investigator should also check to determine if the payments made to the employment commission are in good standing or if this money has been withheld by the employer and not submitted to the taxing authority. Other sources to locate former employees in county records are voter's registration, U.C.C., real property, marriage license and driver's license departments.


In a fire where valuable assets are declared destroyed, the investigator should make every attempt to identify these items and to determine if these items were actually destroyed in the fire. Such items as diamonds and precious stones will not be consumed in a fire and can be traced through their specific identity if registered with the Gemological Institute of America. In residential fires where the investigator feels that the furniture and fixtures were removed prior to the fire, every effort should be made to describe the items fully. Guns, stereo equipment, televisions, and other serial numbered items, frequently turn up in the house of a friend or mini-warehouse owned by the claimant.




Once the investigator brings his case to court, it is his job to provide witnesses to break down the testimony of the accused. The key to this testimony is the quality of information provided by those persons on the witness stand. Tangible facts, records, and eye-witness testimony will have much more weight than self-serving statements and character witnesses who are frequently the basis of the defendant's case.

Copyright 1998: E.J. Pankau, All Rights Reserved