Up in Smoke
STATE TROOPER DAVID DOMINGOS ARRIVED in Taunton at 2 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon in 2001 to find the town green choked beneath a pall of thick gray smoke. Domingos, the State Fire Marshal Office’s chief investigator for the South Shore and Cape Cod, was wearing his “turnout gear” — fire hat, heavy reflective jacket, and flame-retardant boots — as he pushed his way through the police tape to where firefighters were braced on the sidewalk, aiming jets of water at a burning building.
The blaze had begun in the Main Street Lottery and News convenience store, he was told, spreading from there into a jewelry store and a sports-memorabilia shop that shared the small brick storefront. Heavy walls and a sturdy tin roof thwarted attempts to douse the flames for four hours. During that time, said one firefighter, the conditions inside were so intense that it was “like closing your eyes and sticking your head inside an oven.” Finally, the roof exploded from the intensity of the heat, collapsing into a hole through which the blaze could be extinguished.
Toward dusk, Domingos pushed his way through the broken glass in the front door to look inside the building, but was unable to get more than a few feet through the smoking debris. He settled for taking photos and witness statements at the scene, and returned early the next morning for a more thorough investigation. He and his crew removed timber after timber, looking for burn marks and charring patterns that might show where the fire had started. The investigation took them to the back, left wall of the shop. Domingos called over the K-9 officer, Doug Lynch, who was leading a black Lab named Billy around the scene. Billy pointed her nose to the ground below a telltale V-shaped pattern that often reveals a fire’s point of origin. She went into a seated position, indicating the presence of a liquid “accelerant” like gasoline. The fire, Domingos concluded, had been intentionally set.
That afternoon, Domingos sat in on an interrogation of Jimmy Hebshie, the store’s owner. Hebshie told Taunton police that he’d left his store at 1:30, just before the fire started. Domingos later testified in court that Hebshie also revealed he owed $3,500 to the state lottery commission. A few days after that, the store owner submitted a claim on his insurance policy, which was interpreted as a motive to burn down his shop. A year later, in May 2002, he was indicted for arson. It took four years for Hebshie to actually stand trial, given repeated delays related to his poor health, but when he finally did, a jury convicted him. “I know you’ve heard this many times before,” he said at his sentencing, his voice wavering as he read from a statement, “but I need to say this to you and the court: I am not guilty of this crime.”
Judge Nancy Gertner sentenced him to 15 years, starting in June 2007.