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Fire's own logic: Robert Brock's career in flames

La Jolla, Date Street, Balboa Park, El Cortez cases

"Here was a guy who fantasized a lot. He had watched the fire engines come from his apartment downtown."
  • "Here was a guy who fantasized a lot. He had watched the fire engines come from his apartment downtown."
  • Image by Craig Carlson

It didn't take him long to realize that being a good fire investigator required all his past construction skills along with the patience of Job. You could never rush a fire scene. He learned to dissect a scene much the same way a pathologist dissected a corpse. He buried himself in his work and found it addicting...

"Fire 69," the radio blared. "Respond to vehicle fire at Redbird Lane, cross street, Mockingbird." It took a second for him to realize he was "Fire 69."

"San Diego, Fire 69 responding from Station 6...San Diego, inform the engine company I'll be at the scene in approximately five minutes." One thing Brian hated was waiting for the investigator to take 30 minutes to get to a scene, especially when it was cold. He made a promise to himself to always keep the companies as informed as possible.

Brian was amazed to find the car with no fire damage. The captain pulled him over the side and informed him that the owner was a young girl who was being threatened by her old boyfriend. He had just gotten out of CYA and had served time for assault, stabbing his victim 15 times. He had threatened her over the telephone and sent her a letter telling her if she dated anyone else, she would pay.

Under her car was what appeared to be spilled gasoline. There were several burned matches near the gas that hadn't ignited as the mixture was too rich to burn. Brian carefully put the matches in an envelope after he had photographed the scene. He took a rag, wiped up as much gasoline as possible, and put it in a clean paint container, making sure the lid was sealed airtight. He could then get a lab analysis telling him it was gasoline...

She had given him a description of [Jim] Babich's Toyota truck. It was parked in the driveway when Brian pulled up. He checked the hood of the truck and it was warm. "So our friend has been out and about," mused Brian. Brian knocked on the door, and an older, haggard-looking woman answered. "Good evening, ma'am, I'm sorry to disturb you so late, but I need to talk to your son." He showed her his I.D. and badge...

Little Jim came to the door pretending to rub sleep from his eye. "Yeah, man, what the fuck you want at this house?" the little shit asked. The kid was wiry with the body fat of a longtime drug user...and the usual tattoos. His hair was typical of street puke: long, stringy, unwashed, and never combed.

Brian smiled, "Jim, sorry to wake you at this hour. I sure appreciate you talking to me. I just left your girlfriend's house and she's pretty upset. I know how you kids get in lovers' quarrels and there probably isn't anything to this, but I still have to talk to you...Someone tried to firebomb her car, and she thinks you had something to do with it."

"Hey, man, I broke it off with the bitch."

"If you don't mind, I'd like to look inside your truck, okay?"

"Yeah, man, I got nothing to hide." If this little asshole says, "Yeah, man" one more time, I'm gonna stuff him in a trash can.

The odor of gasoline, although not strong, was present. Brian spotted a book of matches on the seat and put his hand over them, pretending to look behind the seat. He would send the book to the lab and hoped they would "match" the ones found in the car.

The matches matched to a T. The liquid was gasoline and the evidence couldn't get any better.

The judge let Jim go for lack of a probable cause. Brian and Mark [Brian's partner] were dumbfounded. After the preliminary they told the deputy in no uncertain terms what a useless piece of shit he was.

—from Point of Origin by Robert Brock (an unpublished manuscript)

“I've dealt with so many juveniles," says the 52-year-old retired investigator over pancakes at D.Z. Akins in La Mesa, "who were bad kids. And a lot of them came from wealthy families. I guess the bottom line is, environment is everything. These kids are products of their parents and they were abused."

Robert Brock has sky-blue eyes behind large eyeglasses. His hair is a corona of thinning gray and white beneath a balding pate. He does not seem to be a hard man, but his manner suggests he has no use for nonsense or fairy tales — even though the former fire investigator has occasionally rewritten mythology for children's books (among other hobbies) since his retirement in 1989.

"I started out in 1971 as a regular fireman here in San Diego. Because of my age — I was 30 — there was a good chance I wasn't going to be hired. I was too old. But I started out in the 5th Fire Academy, and I was honor man there. That means you are the number one guy in your class, and you are voted that by your peers. Before the fire department, I was in demolition. I was a heavy equipment operator in Local 12. I was older, overweight, and I was suddenly in the academy with all these younger kids from San Diego State. So on my lunch hour I would go run the tower, run the steps, and I got myself physically in shape."

Is that the fire tower near Kearny Mesa off 163?

"Yeah, I'd run that one and the one down at [North Park Fire Station] 14. Well, because of my skills as a painter and mechanic — I used to work for Convair painting airplane engine parts — I ended up in the shop at the 28 [San Diego Fire Department repair facility, Station 28, Kearny, Mesa]. I was a probationary fireman. That's where we used to do all our repairs and after-hours repair. If a guy got into an accident after hours, we would just take care of it and never report it. We used to do a lot of things like that. It was a lot tighter group then.

"Certain things have changed radically," Brock says, pouring syrup and shaking his head. "Certain hiring policies, more thefts, discrimination. I think the first batch of women that were hired [in the early '70s] weren't the best qualified. They could have hired a better quality of women, and they've since done so. I've always felt women were up to the job, but in those early years of anti-discrimination policies, they were getting women who were not physically qualified or qualified in other areas. At first this was something they just had to prove.

"Then I worked rescue. I was involved in some pretty dramatic rescues. I was a paramedic in the Air Force before that. Chief Stevenson at that time — he's since passed on — wanted to equip our rescue rigs a little bit more and get us better training. So I went down to the junkyards and talked to some friends of mine down there who gave us vehicle to practice our techniques. I was always involved in stuff like that.

"The first couple of years I was on the job, back in '73 or '74, I was involved in a SWAT team action in Linda Vista, on Westinghouse Road, I think. This was a national case; this guy had shot his girlfriend then subsequently killed himself. The SWAT guys had tossed a smoke grenade into this guy's place, and it was a hot grenade. Those things can be incendiary. So we had a fire situation along with the SWAT situation.

"I was the first guy in there with two armed guys behind me. The 28's pulled up and shot a line to the second floor. I had a fireball comin' down the stairs. I lost the SWAT guys right there." Brock looks up from his plate and grins lopsidedly. "They ran out the door. It wasn't until later that I realized they were pointing loaded weapons behind me. I was fighting the fire, and I could see this guy laying over there dead. He had shot himself. It was no big deal. I got a letter of commendation for that with 22 misspelled words in it."

When it is suggested that Brock seems a little wary of the press, he explains the origins of his distaste for the media.

"One of my early rescues was in '73 or '74, when I was dropped in a crypt. It was my second or third week on the job. This was at Holy Cross. One gravedigger had gone in after another gravedigger into this underground crypt, and they were both overcome with methane gas. I felt so encumbered and claustrophobic down there about 25 or 30 feet. I couldn't get the one guy out. It was really a struggle. I was burning a lot of oxygen. I've been a diver all my life, so I knew how to conserve air, especially with a tank. Well, finally I got the one guy on the litter and they hauled him out. They got the litter back to me, and I got the other guy out, but by that time I had run out of air. Even though we had had air bottles pumpin' in the bottom, we quickly ran out."

Brock has allowed the remains of his breakfast to cool. He stares across the table, peering into the middle distance of the noisy restaurant.

"I had to get out. There was no way they could get me out quick enough — bad technique at the time. We had a safety rope attached to me, which helped, but I had to take my mask off and try to actually climb up the crypt. Now, this was a deep underground tomb where they would actually stack the caskets one on top of the other. I climbed over them one at a time with very little to breathe except dust and dirt. As soon as I got my head popped up to the top of the grave, I had a TV camera stuck right in my face. Some asshole is asking me, 'How was it down there?' " Brock's shoulders rise and fall and his eyes narrow with laughter.

"I mean, how the hell do you think it was? I used some expletives to get the camera out of my face." Brock is cracking up. "I wanted out of there, and this camera is blocking my way."

Most firemen always want to know what started the fire. I was pretty interested in fires and got to see some real burners, which I enjoyed going to. I was on a truck company that took a lot of pride in what we did. It's exciting work. Scary as hell sometimes but exciting. Eventually, I had the pleasure of working with a fire investigator named Fred Wright, who is very well thought of in the department. He's one of those rare gems.

"Fred and his crew and his investigators made a call on this fire that I thought was dead wrong. It was a garage and house fire, and I forgot what the deal was, but Fred thought it was one thing and I thought it was another cause or point of origin, and I was right. He had missed the obvious, but it's very easy to be wrong about a fire scene, and it was very rare with him. He asked me if I had ever thought about going into fire investigation. I said, "Yeah, it sounds exciting. I'd be interested."

Wright recommended Brock for investigator. He was assigned to a division with an investigator "they weren't too happy with. The guy never made an arrest. He made great reports, but he was afraid to go into jails, he was scared to death of confrontation. He was arrested himself not too long ago for child molestation. I don't know if I should use names. Anyway, I was assigned specifically to take his place, and I didn't realize it at the time. This was 1975."

How does a fire investigator determine the origin of a fire?

"That's the easiest part. Damage comparison and layering," Brock pronounces. "I'll give you an example. Here we are sitting at D.Z. Akins. If you look down this aisle, you see a row of fluorescent lights. Say they had a fire here — I've had this happen in restaurants. By the way, I've always encouraged firemen to act as investigators as well. They're the best investigator you have; they're the first guys in, and what they see is so important. Anyway, say this place was burning. The first fireman might run in and then out saying, 'We've got ten points of origin, it's obviously an incendiary fire!' Well, you see those plastic shields that cover those fluorescent light fixtures?"

Brock is pointing to a series of white plastic waffle meshes flush with the ceiling tile, just beneath the lighting tubes that are set at intervals along the ceiling.

"Those are made out of plastic, right? So once they reach a certain temperature, what do they do?

Melt?

"And what happens then?"

Drip?

Brock nods. "And fall to the floor. It will look like someone poured gasoline there. So you have to look for areas that have more damage than others. A fire burns longer in one place? There's a reason. Was it caused by a flammable? A long burning process? A cigarette? There are indicators.

"Fire scenes are basically not difficult at all, even for a layman, once you understand that fire does some strange things. At the same time, the thing about fire is that it is very logical. I don't think fire has a mind of its own, it's very straightforward. All you have to do is follow the burn patterns, the weather conditions, the winds, the drafts. You really have to be observant.

"You always hear an explosion before a fire. That's because there's a heat buildup, smoke, gases expand and at a certain temperature something's gotta give. If it's a pretty airtight room, people say, 'You can see the windows bulging!' That's where they came up with the term 'backdraft.' You open a door, allow fresh oxygen to enter, fuel the fire...kaboom! It's not that rare a phenomenon.

"I've always enjoyed the puzzle. You put each little piece together. After a while, I was involved in training new investigators. I would still be called back to fire scenes, though."

What would be some of the indications of arson?

"I'll tell you about an interesting fire. This was a hair salon on El Cajon Boulevard called Shear Pleasure. A little Sicilian guy owned it. He thought he was a regular mini-mafioso. He was dealing in drugs, dealing in second trust deeds; he was really trying to play like a big-time crook. He burned his place down. One of the indications was that he put in for $230,000 worth of insurance for the appliances in the business. The most we could come up with — and that was used equipment — was $17,000. Plus we found two five-gallon buckets of gasoline on the scene the following day...pretty good indication. One of them was still half-full." Again, Brock grins and shakes his head.

"See, he didn't pour it out, so the fire burned down in the bucket just like a wick. Very amateur — he was an amateur crook. I was new in the unit, I had never involved myself with a fraud fire, and I had no real training as a police officer. So what I did was I went downtown and got a detective named Mo Jarvis in on the case. He knew a lot about fires, and he eventually ended up with the state fire marshal's office. There was another guy named Dennis Love, another cop's cop. Now, this was a time when there was a certain lack of cooperation between the fire department and the cops. So I learned that administration sometimes is its own worst enemy, but when you get down to the grassroots people, they can be your best friend.

"So I had to learn to be policeman. I had no education, no one who taught me, so where do you go? The cops. You go to the people that do it. I picked [Jarvis's] brain and he picked mine. He was in robbery at the time, so when I had a fire where I thought robbery was involved, I'd call him up. Anyway, he got the ball rolling on this Shear Pleasure case. The case got so big, the D.A's office finally took it over because there were so many connections with the drugs angle and the second trust deeds.

"To make a long story short, we made an arrest on this guy — I can't remember his name. I remember sitting in this guy's office and saying, 'I'm gonna put you in jail.' He was a little curly-haired guy with his little silk shirts and his little gold chains, and he was trying to act real mafia-like: 'You gotta do-a you job, I gotta do-a mine.' You know, like, 'Hey, you don't-a phase-a me at all.' I went to his sentencing, and he was standing there as white as a ghost next to his attorney, when I leaned over and whispered to him, 'You gotta do-a you job, I gotta do-a mine.' It really pissed him off."

Brock leans back and smiles satisfactorily. "There's some lighter moments.

"Anyhow, this guy jumped bail. he blew out. We thought he went out the back door to Mexico or maybe the real mafia blew him away, the Mexican mafia. Because there was a guy in town who was really connected — I can't remember his name, Fernando something maybe — whose nephew was one of the guys who got ripped off on the second trust deed scam.

"We got a phone call from Goose Bay, Oregon, as a matter of fact. Mo Jarvis took the phone call, and this gravelly voice says, 'Are you looking for Fernando?' — or whatever. Mo's taping the phone conversation right away, and the guy gives us an address. It was just like in the movies. Sure as hell," Brock is laughing again, "we called the local sheriff, and we had him back in custody in three days. Those mob guys wanted him back in prison where they could deal with him. He should have gone to Mexico." He chuckles.

Brock was among those who investigated the La Jolla fires of March 1980.

"I was told to change my report about the shake shingles being the cause of the fire spread — that and the Santa Ana conditions we had at the time. Had there been a tile roof on that complex, the damage probably would have been contained to a single condo. The 35 [in UTC] is a real close fire station; they would have come in and put a stop to the fire in ten minutes. But because of the weather conditions and the shake roofs, that fire spread as if you'd poured gasoline from one rooftop to another. Kindling on the roofs! I mean, it didn't take a Rhodes scholar to figure that one out."

Why would the fire department be unhappy with that finding?

Brock pauses and says carefully, "I'm not really sure. But I think that eventually that fire was instrumental in legislation regarding treating shingles. That was a big loss for someone. I've had suspicions about a lot of things about why they liked things and why they didn't. I'll give you an example of why I had suspicions.

"When I went to get reports and photographs for that particular fire, they were missing. A fireman at the 35 had taken some photographs of his own, which I had developed plus I had some other film I had saved that I hadn't turned in because I was concerned about missing reports. One has to draw his own conclusions as to why these things would be missing. The secretaries were blamed.

"I think we had excellent staff and excellent secretaries, and I don't think they lost any of our cases. As to why this stuff disappeared, you have to ask yourself, 'Who benefits? To whose advantage would it be in court to have this evidence or to have it missing?'

"Fire is one crime where the investigator is a substantial part of the evidence — what he sees and what he puts together. That is the evidence. This is why we had such a hard time getting the D.A.'s office to prosecute arson cases when I first got into that unit. They were scared to death to prosecute arson cases because the evidence was not tangible. It was what we saw, what we knew, how we knew what burned. It wasn't a coffee cup with fingerprints on it." Brock holds his own cup aloft as if it were damning evidence.

"We learned to make cases stronger as we went along, but it's a very difficult crime to prove, arson. We became not only good at it, but we became nationally recognized for what we did. All the guys in our unit started from scratch, so I'm kind of proud of that."

Brock was an original founding member of MAST (Metro Arson Strike Team) in 1980 and has received over a dozen commendations.

Is there a typical profile of an arsonist?

After a moment, Brock nods. "Pyromaniacs? Yeah, there are profiles, and we're trained to look for them. It's very difficult to stick to [profiles], though. There are indicators, but they don't always mean anything, so you have to keep an open mind and still stay locked on target. Very difficult to do, but maybe that's the fun of it.

"We had a series of fires years ago. Again, I was just new in the unit at that time. Now, we were taught that juveniles who frequently had urinary tract problems or bed-wedding problems were sometimes considered an indication of a firestarter. I had attended a number of symposiums on juvenile firesetters and talked to a lot of doctors, and I didn't find this necessarily to be the case.

"I'll never forget this one kid. We had all these fires in Del Cerro, and the captain would always talk about this one little boy that always came up and gave him information. That's another indicator. He was a skinny, sickly-looking little kid. The captain never got his name, never really knew who he was. Since then, firemen have learned to do that: 'Hey, kid, what's your name?' They'll take notes for [the investigator].

So we sat out with nightscopes, and one night there was a fire next door to this kid's house. His neighbors felt this kid had started the fire. So I went over and talked with him and his sister; the parents both worked all the time. I had a real reason to believe he had set this fire from what the neighbors told me. So I talked with him for a long time — you learn to talk with juveniles as equals, you know, eyeball to eyeball — and I found him to be the most polite kid, straightforward to the point you'd think he'd never do anything wrong.

"Even his sister kept saying, 'I know he couldn't have done it,' I said, 'Well, has he ever left your sight' and she said, 'No. The only time I don't see him is when he's in the bathroom. He has a bladder problem, so he's in there for a long time.' I asked her how long, and she said, 'I don't know, but a long time.'

"Well, I checked out the bathroom, and the window opened onto the street out in front. The kid was goin' out, lightin' fires in the neighborhood, and comin' back in through the bathroom window." Brock is laughing at the recollection.

"I just asked the kid, 'Why?' I didn't ask him if he did it. I just hunched down and asked him why he set the fires. He started crying and said that he didn't know. The parents were pretty upset with me for exposing their child. I had done it because they were both away from home, and the teenaged daughter was the caretaker. The primary consideration was to stop the fires, not to put some little kid in juvenile hall. That's the last thing we wanted to do. We got the child counseling through the D.A.'s office, and eventually the family moved to Newport Beach. We weren't allowed to give any information to authorities in Newport Beach about the boy because of, you know, juvenile laws." Brock's eyes narrow and he smiles, looks from side to side with mock paranoia and says, "But I did."

Brock says he made one of the arrests in the 1978 Balboa Park fires. "I've learned from so many mistakes. I arrested the security guard, a black female security guard. There was no doubt in my mind she had burned the Old Globe Theater to the ground. That was taken out of our hands because, quote unquote, we didn't have the police qualifications to do the job. They lost that case on a rights issue."

Why would this security guard have burned down the theater? Brock uses the phrase "fantasy fire...vanity fire."

"Let's face it, security guard is not a high-paying job. It's also lonely and boring. A lot of these people feel they have to prove their worth, and they have a lot of time to think. Sometimes they start small fires and extinguish them and then say, 'Hey, look what I did. Make me a supervisor and raise me from $4.10 an hour to $4.95.' I don't mean to demean security guards, there are some excellent ones, but I believe it was something like this that happened in that case. We'll never know. She was not prosecuted, but I believe she should have been. We caught her in lies and another guard lying for her. The whole thing stunk to high heaven."

Another major fire that Brock investigated was the Presbyterian Church fire on Date Street in October 1980. "There's a classic example," says Brock. "The fellow that started that fire was friends with the guy who later set that big hotel fire in Las Vegas [MGM Grand Hotel].

"The first police officer on the scene approached me and said, 'I have a witness for you, but he left me.' Another cop had seen the guy and had a good description of him so that when he returned to the fire scene, we got him.

"So I start talking to the guy, and remember those indicators we were talking about? Profiles? It was link in the El Cortez fires, where the suspect was telling me, 'I always wanted to be a volunteer fireman. Yeah, as a child we had a fire in my house. My brother set it,' or 'My sister set it.' Somebody else did it. It is always somebody else.

"So this guy at the [Date Street] fire says, 'I saw this burglar and I chased him through the church. So I asked him to take me through the scene step by step. This was a big fire with several points of origin, keep in mind. So he took me through each room and showed me where he saw the 'burglar'. I drew pictures and diagrams as he talked, and I recorded his statements. Everywhere he stopped to show me where this guy was, was a point of origin. We knew that during the time this witness claimed to be chasing a burglar, the power generators had failed in the building. It would have been pitch dark in there, with no available light.

"I asked him, 'When you were in this spot where you said you saw the guy, it would have been pitch dark. You couldn't have seen anybody. You weren't chasing anybody, you set the fires. Why did you set the fires?' And he confessed he did it, but I forget why, or even if he knew.

"I kind of felt bad for the guy. I saw him years later when he got out of prison and he'd been raped. But here was a guy who fantasized a lot. He had watched the fire engines come from his apartment downtown, and he came to the scene to be helpful, one of the guys. It really turned him on."

Can arsonists then be, at times, something like fireman groupies?

"Yes, that's one of the indicators. This guy had just been recently divorced, and he found out he was a homosexual, which is how we found out about the guy in Las Vegas. He was a cook's helper there working with that guy."

Is there some connection between pyromania and sexuality?

Brock looks puzzled. "I don't know. I've heard theories, but it's hard to say. I can only remember one guy that actually seemed to 'get off' starting fires, and he wasn't even that perverted really. He used to start little fires in Laundromats and then expose himself to women. We called him 'The Weenie Wagger.' The thing is, I went to get the warrant to arrest the guy, and the judge I had to deal with was this guy who was later kicked off the Superior Court bench for hiring prostitutes to defecate on him. He was the judge who signed the warrant." Brock laughs yet again. "So who's the weirdo? You learn not to categorize people."

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