Up in Smoke
AS THE FACTS OF THE CASE were laid out, the argument for arson rested on the fire starting on the first floor, where investigators discovered the burn marks and Billy identified the accelerant. Yet a firefighter with a thermal camera who’d entered the store found hot spots behind all four walls, which suggested to Lentini that the fire came up from the basement. Oddly, there didn’t seem to be any documentation in the trial evidence of the basement’s condition. “I went looking for the photographs, and I found none,” Lentini says. “I was very skeptical of the claim someone had actually gone into the basement and looked at it carefully enough to eliminate it.”
Domingos’s own report makes no mention of the condition of the cellar. During the trial, he testified that he’d gone down there and seen very little damage. He hadn’t taken photos, he said, in part because he was trying to save film. Lentini instructed Kempthorne to call the insurance company’s investigator and ask for his photos. But that investigator later testified that he’d been unable to get into the basement when he visited the site because it was blocked by debris. That was a day after Domingos had done his investigation.
Lentini says he’s amazed that an investigator wouldn’t take photos to show he’d ruled out accidental causes — especially someone as experienced as Domingos, who’d investigated more than 500 fires by the time of the one at Hebshie’s store. But the more Lentini looked at the evidence in the case, the more he questioned the conclusions. There was another “V” pattern on the wall several feet from where Domingos said the fire started. And there was the fact that the sample identified by Billy the dog as an accelerant had come back as “light petroleum distillate,” which is most commonly found in replacement fluid for Zippo-type lighters. That kind of fluid is a poor fire starter, Lentini says, and is something Hebshie sold in his store. The lighter fluid could have easily been knocked off a shelf by the force of a fire hose. There’s no way of telling, however, since Domingos’s team didn’t test other areas of the shop for the liquid. Add it all up, and Lentini believes there was a rush to judgment that the fire was arson, followed by an attempt to find evidence to prove it. “There is a certain arrogance that pervades this profession,” he says. “There are many fire investigators who refuse to write ‘undetermined.’ They leap to conclusions.”
After reading Lentini’s analysis, Kempthorne was stunned at how passive Hebshie’s lawyers had been during the trial — especially since by that time, Hebshie’s case wasn’t the only one raising questions about fire investigations in Massachusetts.
HUMBERTO CORREIA said he was taking out the trash on the morning of September 30, 1996, when he noticed a fire in his photo shop on Broadway in Taunton — just down the street from where Hebshie’s store would burn years later. At the same time, two police officers also saw the flames and called in a report of the blaze, which was quickly extinguished. Taunton fire officials and a state-trooper colleague of Domingos’s named Frank Hall conducted an investigation and concluded that Correia had intentionally set the fire in order to collect insurance money.
At the ensuing federal trial, Correia was convicted of arson and mail fraud, which carried a maximum sentence of 45 years. But federal judge Rya Zobel took the unusual step of dismissing the verdict and ordering a new trial. The case against Correia “was crafted from a patchwork of circumstantial evidence, largely unrebutted by the defense,” Zobel wrote. Correia’s lawyer was James Fagan, then a state representative from Taunton who also ran a private law practice. In the retrial, Correia’s new lawyer showed that prosecutors had virtually no evidence to connect Correia to the scene or even to consider the fire arson. All five charges were dismissed.