Arsons in Detroit going unsolved

(WXYZ) - More than 5,000 suspicious fires are reported in Detroit each and every year.  Yet, Action News has learned, very few of the fires are getting investigated and criminals are walking free.

The Detroit Fire Department currently only has six certified arson investigators.  They do what they can, but they can't begin to tackle the massive work load.  So, with little fear of getting caught, the fires continue and innocent people are paying the price.

Retired Detroit firefighter Brendan Milewski can't escape the images or the sounds from the morning of August 13, 2010.  Milewski just arrived to work when the call went out, commercial building on fire.  Milewski grabbed the gear out of his car, and jumped on the fire rig. 

"You could see this massive column of smoke," said Milewski.  "I had the most eerie feeling about that fire.

About 15 minutes after arriving on scene, the two-story commercial building began to collapse.  Debris spilled into the roadway, and onto firefighters, injuring seven, including Milewski. 

"It was like a piece of limestone about the size of a parking block that hit me in the back," said Milewski.  "I knew, I knew instantly that I was paralyzed.  Life as I knew it was over."

But it didn't have to be.  The fire was intentionally set, an attempt at insurance fraud.  Calvin Jone and Samson Wright were sentenced in Federal Court for setting the fire and are spending time behind bars.  They are the exception.

"I think people just kind of say it's just another fire and they think they can get away with it, and a lot of times, unfortunately, that is true," said Detroit Fire Captain Charles Simms.

Members of Detroit Fire Department's arson squad are some of the best trained and most experienced arson investigators in the country. The problem lies in staffing.  Even the department currently is budgeted for 16 investigators, right now, they only have six certified to do the job. 

"We are not investigating nowhere near what we should, and that is because of manpower." said Simms.

Detroit's arson problem is costing millions of dollars in property damage and you are paying for it in the way of higher insurance premiums.  In 2010, State Farm teamed up with the Michigan Arson Prevention Committee to try and reduce the number of fires and punish the people starting them.

Patricia Parr-Armelagos is with State Farm Insurance and tells Action News, "Knowing that the resources were dwindling, not only for investigators, but also prosecutors, we started an initiative to raise money and fund a dedicated prosecutor in Wayne County to address the problem."

That job has fallen to Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Louisa Papalas.  She knows she has a lot of battles to fight, and she is winning some of them.  Like in the case of Robert Chambers.  He was found guilty of arson after hiring Keeman Crosby to set fire to his mother's home in Detroit.

One of Papala's biggest victories didn't come in the courtroom, it came from Lansing.  With the help of others, Michigan's laws have been changed to make sure arsonist face serious prison time when they are caught.

"If you commit an arson, whether you intended to hurt someone or not, you are looking at up to life in prison, and we are proud of that." said Papalas.

The Michigan Arson Prevention organization has setup a reward program.  You can get up to $5,000 for information leading to the arrest and/or conviction of anyone on arson charges. 

To report information, call 1-800-44-ARSON.

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