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San Diego cops and firemen work arson together

Firebugs: detectives sift the ashes

"Most people are completely in awe of how quickly a fire can engulf a building or burn up a car."
  • "Most people are completely in awe of how quickly a fire can engulf a building or burn up a car."
  • Image by John Campbell

Carle shows me into his office, which is windowless and paneled with fake pine, like a 1950s rumpus room. Its main feature is a grease-pencil board listing 14 arson fires since February, all in the midtown area, between downtown and Hillcrest. “Same guy, you think?” I ask.

"Our day starts at nine in the morning, and we work till nine the following morning. We actually work 25-hour days."

"Our day starts at nine in the morning, and we work till nine the following morning. We actually work 25-hour days."

“Oh, yeah,” the 41-year-old fire cop says. He has gray hair and a salt-and-pepper mustache slightly curled at the ends, like a turn-of-the-century singer in a barbershop quartet. Dennis Franz might play him in the movies, but Carle has more hair and appears less menacing. “I have no idea who he is, but I have a gut feeling we’ve seen him before.

“We believe very strongly that it is a single person. Mostly because of methodology.” Carle leans forward. He wears a short-sleeved navy-blue shirt with a muted gold geometric pattern. He is a polite, attentive, clean cute, and young looking, except for the gray. He looks like a prematurely aged Eagle Scout. “The location of these fires are clustered, the time of day—mostly between 4:00 and 6:00 am.”

"He basically tried to cremate her inside the house and figured he'd walk."

"He basically tried to cremate her inside the house and figured he'd walk."

“Anything else as far as ‘methodology’?” I ask.

He appears momentarily uncomfortable, as if trying to think of the most diplomatic way of putting this. “I was told you could be counted on to hang on to certain information you might become privy to in the course of riding along. Information that might jeopardize the investigation.”

I assure him that is correct.

"Up and down First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Avenues, from here all the way to Spruce."

"Up and down First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Avenues, from here all the way to Spruce."

"Well, we're in the middle of this investigation, but a similarity is that all the fires were started outside the buildings; they were all wood Victorian structures and started with ordinary combustibles. Some type of open flame, but wood siding, wood-covered structures, in every instance an unoccupied building at the time of the fire."

"The kind of buildings," I suggest, "that get renovated and turned into lawyers' offices."

Carle smiles and nods. "Yeah, a dentist's office, buildings in renovation." He looks for a waiver form for me to sign before the ride-along. He finds it on his desk, beneath memos that came in while he was sleeping in the office/bedroom down the hall provided for MAST investigators. The previous night, Carle had been staking out the midtown area in plain clothes, along with his partner and a number of other personnel. The stakeout lasted past 6:00 a.m. and turned up nothing useful.

"Is there any similarity in the ownership of the buildings?"

Carle shakes his head. "No. Believe me, we've been in crime analysis so much, they've given us our own seat. We're not even able to predict accurately where the next fire might be. A cycle of 14 fires, you'd think, would be enough to put pins in a map and show a pattern, but the clusters don't show such a pattern. There've been breaks for as long as 20 days in this series. No fires. And then all of a sudden, the exact same thing."

"Although the media and the mayor and the fire chief are jumping up and down and screaming, they don't give a shit unless somebody's callin' them. It matters little until somebody's pushin' their buttons. I've put a gazillion miles on my feet between the hours of two and six in the morning. Up and down First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Avenues, from here all the way to Spruce.

"We've looked at a number of people; we've actually eliminated a number of people. We've looked at people we put away and are now out, back on the streets, and we've eliminated some of them. We have extensive use of computers to tell us when people are in jail or not, and we transpose over that when we are having fires. Basic investigation techniques."

Carle leans back in his chair and rolls a pencil between thumb and forefinger. "We want to make the series stop, and we want to grab the guy. But the primary goal is to make the people safe. If you think about it, when you go to bed at night, just like everybody else, you don't really think, 'Gee, I hope nobody comes up and sets fire to the exterior of this structure that might burn me out of my home.' Every one of these fires had the potential to burn the building down. Some of them were caught early, and some of them weren't set very well, like, the fuel wasn't sufficient to ignite the structure-- self-extinguishing. This last fire on the 14th [July], that's the fire that got away. That fire was set in a building with a type of construction that is no longer permitted. That fire raced up an interior wall and took the roof off the house."

"It sounds as if," I venture, "this guy doesn't know what he's doing all that well."

Carle seems reluctant to commit to that. "The simplest methods are the ones that work the best. The easiest things to do are the most reliable and probably draw the least amount of attention to you. If you were stopped while walking down the street on the way to start one of these fires, you could come up with any of a thousand excuses as to why you were where you were at that time. And there probably wouldn't be anything on your person that would allow us to go anywhere else with that field contact."

"You mean, like, gasoline?"

"You don't need gasoline. You can use newspaper, trash, crap off the back porch, plastic trash cans. You don't need accelerants. Gasoline almost always leaves a trace. A lot of times gasoline burns so quickly that it draws attention to the fire real fast, but it doesn't develop burn time, in many cases, that allows the kind of damage to be done that people think. Oh, and we have a lot of Hollywood images embedded in our brains about how fires behave and how structures ignite and burn. The issues for me are how fire really behaves. I'm a fire behavioral scientist, if you will. We work backwards with the fire. The guys in the trucks are trying to predict where it's gonna go next, and we think in terms of where it's been."

"What about the Robert De Niro character in that movie...."

"Oh," he grins. "Backdraft. A lot of Hollywood in that. Some basis in fact. Smatterings of fact, but it was a movie. It needed to have entertainment value. The movie doesn't show you how much time I sit in here with a pencil in my hand or at a typewriter. It's not something that just magically occurs. We might as well not have gone to any fires if we didn't accurately document the fire. That written report is how a lot of people measure you. Let's say we take somebody in custody for this [the midtown fires], well the entire package [indicates paperwork] goes to the district attorney's office, and they look at it and decide whether or not to issue.

"We've had the great good fortune of several deputies over there who are very, very talented and highly regarded in the system, and they generally look over our cases. But not all of our cases get the same deputy. Like, what if a deputy has the day off or is in trial or something? The first thing someone thinks of us is what they read. A lot of the job is command of language. They might not know anything about fire. They might be in the penal code for the first time looking up 451(b). They wanna take on cases they can win, so they think, 'I've read this guy's report. It's clear and concise, and I think I can win this.' So they issue the case, and we go on from there with them."

As I sign the waiver form, I lean over the desk and ask Carle what 451(b) is.

"The crime of arson is defined [paragraph] 450, and the penalties are in 451(b) of the California Penal Code. If you burn an inhabited dwelling or a structure designed for inhabitation, whether it is inhabited or occupied at the time of the fire or not, that's 451(b). Three, six, or nine years, something like that."

"Four fifty-one is also the Fahrenheit temperature at which paper burns," I remind him, thinking of the Ray Bradbury story.

"From the book. Right." He smiles. "I don't know how exactly it got to be 451 in the California Penal Code." "What kind of guy are you looking for?"

"Ahhh..." Carle exhales deeply, "the profile." He picks up a memo from his desk and waves it toward me. "This radio station just called and wants a profile on this guy too. If you go with some of what are called the classic indicators of someone like this, that would give you a profile of someone who is perhaps between 20 and 35 years old, white male, generally very conflicted, a lot of problems in his life. There is a high likelihood that they are somewhat dysfunctional in their life. Loners or losers or however you want to hang a sign on that person. They're not doin' well."

Carle takes a call from Battalion Leader John Hale, something about Dumpster fires in Mission Valley. While he is on the phone, a muscular, blond man with thinning hair and a yellow knit shirt leans his head into the room. He wears what looks like a 9mm Beretta on his belt and an SDPD badge. Carle covers the mouthpiece and looks over at Detective Sergeant Bill Edwards. Edwards says, "Your bride called." Carle raises his eyebrows as if to say, "Oh really?"

Once off the phone, he picks up where he left off. "Not all arsonists and certainly not all serial arsonists fil that profile. That would probably fit somebody who would go into the classic pyromaniac category. But pyromania is a psychological disease. It's medically diagnosed, extraordinarily rare, and defined as a persistent compulsion to start fires. If anything goes wrong in these people's lives, they start fires."

"What about fire service groupies?" I ask. "I mean the kind of guy that's fascinated with firemen, maybe always wanted to be one but can't and just likes to hang out with firemen at a scene, even if he has to light the fire."

"There are a whole bunch of people that are sort of fans of the fire service and for one reason or another would never fit, never be selected. It bears mentioning here that it's tough to get a job in the fire service. Some people might come to that sort of frustration just trying to get in the employment picture in general. But on the other hand, yeah, you could have someone like that. Some people are just good-natured friends of the fire service, of course.

"I've got a video of this guy named Joseph Keller, who started a series of more than 100 fires in the Northwest. This guy was drivin' us nuts. This kid's fire behavior began when he was nine years old. I don't know if he was ever intervened. He adopted the fire service, and the service somewhat adopted him. It was nothing for this kid to get on a bike and visit every fire station in the surrounding countryside. He would go miles and miles to visit the firehouses. One of the statements you can see on the video when he was arrested, when asked why he set fires, was 'Well, this volunteer fire company just got a brand-new engine, and they need to wring it out and find out what it's like.' Sometimes he'd hang around and sometimes not. In my experience, the person hanging around to watch and see the results is pretty rare.

"Most motivations for fire-setting are criminal in nature, and most people want to get away with it. Maybe they'll gloat some other time. The reasons can be spite or revenge, insurance, gang-involved arson, boyfriend/girlfriend disputes, any kind of significant-other discord. You've got arson fires that go under the guise of civil disorders, like, the abortion clinic bombings and fires are an example. People who are very, very angry for a variety of reasons."

Carle leans back again and with his pencil counts off on his fingers. "Basically you've got seven motives that most arson fires lump into. You've got fraud," he ticks off one finger. "People who, for whatever reason, want to sell their business, move out, maybe burn a competitor out — a store that's opened up down the street that's taking all your business.

"Just had a big case here. The gentleman just pled guilty, a guy named Majid Zehedi. He owned a bunch of IHOPs [International House of Pancakes] and burned one of those up. He was losing a lawsuit in federal court under the Americans with Disabilities Act and was basically going to have to come up with money out of his own pocket to remodel his restaurant. He also had remodeling orders coming down for IHOP corporate to remodel and modernize. He had one of the oldest stores in San Diego County. IHOP was looking at this guy really closely, because they felt he was not accurately reporting profits. In fact they uncovered some information from people in the store that there might be a phantom cash register being operated on the days that IHOP corporate wasn't out inspecting. Two years ago, he burned the place to the ground. We found out, after a very extensive investigation, that not only was he running a separate cash register, but he was involved in credit card fraud. You might use your credit card in his restaurant, and all of a sudden people in Los Angeles would be buying stuff on your card number."

Carle ticked off another finger. "We talked about revenge..." another finger. "You've got vanity fires. That's when somebody wants to be a hero and rescue somebody, so they set a fire, that kind of thing. We've had cases where a security guard sets a fire where he works, puts it out so he might get a pay raise."

"Wasn't that the case with the Old Globe fire?"

"No, I think we know who set that. I don't think the Old Globe was a vanity. They looked very closely at some security guards, but..." he shook his head. "Actually the Old Globe guy is one of the most prolific fire-setters in the county. He's still around. He's been arrested by us on a number of occasions."

"Are you looking at him right now for these fires?" I indicate the grease-pencil board. "Absolutely."

Finger number four, "you've got civil disorders. We talked about the clinic fire bombings, etc." Number five, "You've got the actions of juveniles. That's the largest-growing segment of the fire problem in this country right now...what kids are up to." Number six, "Pyromania. A lot of different things lead people down that road, but like I said, pure pyromania is rare."

Number seven, "Crime concealment. A lot of fires are set in order to cover other criminal activities. If that fire had been set at that IHOP in order to do away with all the business receipts and evidence of a phantom cash register — you see, three days a week everything would go into his own cash register, into his own pocket, so there'd only be four days of reported profit to IHOP —it's a fire that is criminal in nature. Murder or burglary are the primary reasons fires are set to conceal crime.

"There's a guy named Lorinzo Hopson. It's alleged that he got into an argument with his wife and killed her, then thought, 'How am I going to get out of this?' and basically tried to cremate her inside the house and figured he'd walk. It took a little bit of forensic work, an autopsy, to be certain, but meantime he was calling in all the time to confess. Everybody in this office he confessed to at least once, and when we got ahold of the homicide guys to go get him, it turns out he had just finished confessing to them. [Then he pleaded] not guilty." Carle laughs and looks at his watch. Footsteps approach down the hall.

Carle's partner, engineer John Campbell, sticks his head in the doorway. He is a young, fit 51, with wavy brown-and-steel hair. Carle looks up at him and says, "You ready?"

"Does a hobbyhorse got a hickory tail?" his partner answers.

"Let's go."

After introductions, during which Campbell talks in a phony Cockney accent (I don't know whether he's doing Stan Laurel or Boris Karloff), Carle announces, "We've got a mission."

He indicates I should sit at the back of the unmarked, red van. Both Campbell and Carle stack MAST hats, jackets, boots, and gun belts next to me. Next to us is a white van marked ATF Explosive Investigation Truck. At my feet are two dozen rolls of Kodaz 400 film, two flashlights in a recharger holder. Between the front seats are a radio and microphone, a gooseneck lamp fixed to the dashboard, and a small computer screen and keyboard mounted in front of the passenger side, where Carle sits. The keyboard is covered with a sort of plastic shrink-wrap.

"Let's see what's on the Internet," Carle says.

"You're on the Internet with that thing?"

Carle and Campbell look at each other and grin. "It's just a joke," Carle explains.

"Oh, right, So, where are we going?" At this point Campbell hits the gas and pulls out of the parking bay, which is full of fire engines. I am caught off guard and end up leaning over to my left, six inches from the butt of an automatic pistol.

Carle smiles. "Lunch!" he announces and then turns to his partner. "Hey! This isn't a golf cart, John." He turns back to me. "He drives golf carts like they're fire engines too. Probably the only reason he plays golf."

Campbell heads downtown and looks for a parking spot off Fourth Avenue near Broadway. These partners seem to have developed a relationship based, to some extent, on Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. The conversation went like this:

"Here's a spot opening up, right here."

"I see it."

"Get over. Get over. You're too late. He beat you to it."

Someone else pulls out, two car lengths down, and Campbell grabs it, wedging the van into a tight space just in front of the Chinese restaurant. I mention something about New York City parking techniques, and this triggers a discussion of Campbell's recent parking fine in Hillcrest. "It said, 'Public Parking,' that's all I saw. I didn't realize you were supposed to pay to park in the Thrifty lot."

"What were you doing there?" Carle asks.

"I was getting a fruit smoothie at that juice place across the street; and when I walked back to get an ice-cream cone at Thrifty's, I saw I had this ticket."

"What were you doing getting an ice-cream after a fruit smoothie? How can you justify that?"

Both of them are on the verge of cracking up as we walk into the restaurant. After being partners for six years, Campbell and Carle have become something of an act. They order the buffet, I order coffee. They tell the dowager behind the register, whom they seem to know, that I'm paying. I correct them. "Hey, I'm on a low budget. I've got to be cheap, sorry."

They each cough up $4, and Carle says, "Well, you're with the right guys then. Our budget's way down too." They laugh. They have to.

Over lunch the conversation again turns to arson. "Who is this guy?" Carle ash rhetorically. "That's a good question. It might not even be a guy. Doesn't have to be a male. It may not be all that common to have a woman involved in arson, but you can't eliminate them with as little information as we have.

My last arrest was a female. I can empathize as to what happened with this lady. About two weeks before, her kids were identified as playing with fire in a canyon; and we try to intervene with kids like this, give them an education, try to make them fire-safe. So the fire company comes around and talks to the kids. But during the process, we couldn't find the mom. The police initiate a neglect investigation — turns out CPS comes out and takes her five kids away. She's completely beside herself. Understandable. Big problems; screaming, yelling, long police report. A little while later, there are fires set inside her house. Somebody actually saw her setting an ironing board on fire. So she has to go away. It's against the law to burn down your house — actually she was renting."

I ask about their guns. They seem to carry different types. Carle carries a Sig Sauer 226 and Campbell a 228. "I need more bullets than he does," the engineer deadpans. They discuss the coating on Campbell's gun that protects it from water damage at fire scenes. Campbell turns to me and with his face Cockney accent says, "My handcuffs are rusted. It's loyka sauna in there!"

The conversation returns to fire. "Fire in this culture is an interesting thing," Carle says over a foam-plastic bowl of frozen yogurt. Campbell is returning to the table with a tower of the stuff that leans to one side. "More people die from fires in the city of New York in one year than in the entire country of Japan. That says something about what goes on in this country. Of the largest industrialized nations — and this was a study called 'America's Burning,' done back in the '70s — this country killed more people, injured more people, and burned more property than the other eight nations they looked at combined. Our country kicked their butts.

"The National Fire Protection Services say that overall, the damage caused by fires is up in this country. We definitely have a problem.

"San Diego is an interesting city. We've always done more with less, protected more people with less firefighters than any major metropolitan city in the United States. I think we're the sixth largest city in the nation, and we have fewer firefighters than any other city in the top ten. It's very hard to continue to cut a budget when you're real slim in the first place. But that's somebody else's job." After lunch we tour the midtown area, and Carle points out a half-dozen fire scenes, all grouped fairly near each other, between Fifth and First, Fir and Juniper. Indeed, all of them are wooden, Victorian structures. Meanwhile Carle defines the Metropolitan Arson Strike Team and what it does.

"MAST is a combined unit of police officers and firefighters. We are to determine origin and cause and actively and aggressively pursue criminal cases when they are uncovered. We prepare criminal case packets, make arrests, do all that stuff. We also manage the explosive-devices team. The SDPD has no bomb squad, you know. We're it. We're also unique in that the police officers work out of our office. The sergeant [Bill Edwards] and the three detectives."

MAST team members work 24-hourshifts. "Our day starts at nine in the morning," says Carle, "and we work till nine the following morning. We actually work 25-hour days. Everybody shows up at eight, because we need that time to make the changeover. It's 220 to 240 hours a month."

Carle explains how MAST works in tandem with the SDPD to avoid jurisdictional conflicts. "This unit was formed to keep that from happening. We blend. The sergeant comes in, and he can give me a whole mess of stuff to do in a day. I'm a fire captain, and he's a police sergeant, but he's an office manager. He's in charge of who's assigned to what on a day-to-day basis. We'll come in, he'll say, 'This happened overnight. We need to get this done; this is an all-hands kind of thing.' When we respond to a fire incident, then I'm in charge as a scene supervisor. We blend back and forth. It's not like I say, 'Okay, Bill, do this and do that.' We try to truly approach this from a team aspect.

"My engineer is lower than I am in rank and status." Campbell looks over at Carle and gives him an "Oh, really?" look. "But I listen to John, because John has a look on the world that I truly value. I'm really fortunate to have a partner that is grounded like he is and can sometimes not be affected by all the different things pinging off me. While I'm the focal point for questions, he can come in and whisper something and then back out, making things clearer to me.

"When there is a death resulting from what has been established as arson, it becomes a homicide, right?" I ask Carle. "Does the case then come under the aegis of the police homicide squad? Does MAST take a back seat?"

"When someone dies in a fire, we presume that it's a homicide," Carle says. Campbell has pulled the van into the parking lot of the veteran's center on Sixth Avenue and Spruce. The investigators are responding to a call concerning kindling-like brush that had been set up against the side of the building; it is an m.o. similar to the other midtown arsons. This time, no fire had been set. Carle continues talking.

"Until we can prove otherwise, it's always a homicide. We want to proceed as carefully as possible. You have a body that is somewhat immolated. You don't have an obvious gunshot wound or stab wound. You have to rely a lot more on the medical examiner, and that takes a little longer, but they'll find it if it's there. So we process the fire scene with a death from fire as if it is a homicide because we don't want to find out later that it was and get that 'uh-oh' effect. To me, the death of a person, whether it's from a fire or from a murder and then a fire — well, I just can't think of a more important investigation. To me, time constraints don't exist, resource constraints don't exist. I'll do what I need to d; I'll get the people I need and make sure they have what they need.

"A human being dying in a fire is a complete failure of the fire safety system in this country. Most people look at the shiny fire engines and see us working out or jogging in the park or have contact with us when we come out and do a fire inspection. That prevention activity is where our efforts are guided, what we're trying to do. When the bell rings, and a fire has actually occurred, and the fire is an accident, then that is a failure, a breakdown in the education/prevention system.

"Most people are completely in awe of how quickly a fire can engulf a building or burn up a car. Statistically you're only going to have three, maybe four contacts with the fire service in your life. Two to three of those will be for medical aid, because you're in a traffic accident or you witnessed a heart attack or something. But when you have a fire, eyes get frozen open, and time goes into that compressed situation — a second takes an hour to go by. Now it's 'Oh God!' time. Most people have no idea how quickly smoke can damage all your clothing and stuff like that.

"A lot of people are underinsured. No fire insurance of any kind. Without it you're in a lot of trouble. Just think about what it would cost to replace your clothing alone. Think of the check you would have to write to even come close to replacing all your clothes. I've got four daughters; it would kill me.

"The difference in this country is, when you have a fire, you hear a lot of, 'Are you okay? Glad you got out. You have insurance, don't you' But, say, in Switzerland. everybody just wants to know why you had the fire. Like, 'What's your problem, buddy?' We have a different cultural approach to what happens. You have fires in Japan, but you don't have many. It's a shameful thing to have an accidental fire in Japan. In some European countries, you can go to jail for having an accidental fire. It's against the law to be that stupid. Our system is a failure. A fire engine sitting in the bay waiting for a fire, that's bad news. A fire engine out in the district trying to prevent a fire, doing safety inspections, making a difference in people's lives, that's the idea. That's what we're doing here in San Diego."

We enter the vet center, and the team has been told to ask for someone named Johnny. Johnny turns out to be a gray-haired woman, around 60. She had called early that morning when she discovered dry brush set up against the side of the structure. The brush previously had been clipped from nearby hedges and placed in a Dumpster in a wooden shed. The branches were then removed from the Dumpster and wedged between bushes and the stucco-sided building. The woman thought this suspicious, and Carle and Campbell agreed.

While Carle talks with the woman, Campbell paces off the outside area, examining the Dumpster shed. He is studying something on the ground, kicks it with his foot, and points to the object. It is a syringe with a plastic cover over the needle. Campbell loses interest and examines the Dumpster. It is filled with dry branches, and the shed is of bleached, dry wood.

"This ought to burn nicely," I suggest.

"Oh, yea. But the actual building wouldn't. You start a fire up against that stucco, and it's just going to char the paint. Those branches were probably put there as bedding for some homeless guy. Jeff knows that. It's just that this building is in the target area."

Meanwhile, Carle is chatting amiably with Johnny. As we approach, he is saying, "No, you definitely did the right thing in calling."

She turns to Campbell. "It's just that there are so many weird characters around here."

Campbell nods, deadpan. Jack Webb in Dragnet. "Yes, ma'am, I know, I work with one." Then he smiles.

Now we are on our way to Mission Valley. A memo on a clipboard logs a phone message about a construction Dumpster fire in a field next to the E-Z 8 Motel. There is some question about liquid fuel being involved. While Carle is on the car phone to Edwards, Campbell leans toward me and explains that the liquid fuel effect could be caused by a plastic top on the Dumpster.

Campbell says he runs a photography business on the side, and Carle teaches in the community college district. "John and I are both shooters," Carle says. "Hunting season's coming up, and I'm kind of a big shotgun fan." The partners often hunt dove and quail together.

At the site, the far west end of Hotel Circle, only one Dumpster is in evidence. "You think they already hauled them off?" Carle ask rhetorically. "That one's not burned." The call had come in the previous night from an employee of the Fabulous Inn across the street. A man in a van had been spotted late a night. He took a bicycle from his truck and rode around the vacant lot on the south side of the San Diego River. He was seen returning to his truck, replacing the bicycle and then driving off. Moments later, the Dumpsters were seen burning.

"Let's see the man," Campbell says, getting out of the driver's side. "Don't you love that in the movies when they say, 'Let's see the man'?" Carle laughs.

The partners go inside to the front desk and wait their turn behind guests registering. As at the vet center, they do not display their badges, Carle merely presents his City of San Diego business card. The desk clerk doesn't know anything about Dumpster fires. Everyone who was on duty last night is gone. They'll have to return later that night.

Back in the van, Campbell says, "I thought they took those Dumpsters to the landfill and we're gonna work it there."

"Naw, I think that was the garbage truck fire. Let's find out."

Campbell pulls out and heads east. "He drives like a maniac," Carle says to no one in particular. Earlier at lunch, I had said something about MAST investigators being the subject of a TV series — a kind of detective the public hasn't really seen much of. Campbell had said, "Nah, it's too boring."

Now, he looks at me in the rear-view mirror and says, "I told you it was boring."

The subject turns to some recent events involving suicide by self-immolation. Carle says, "We had a witness at Mission Beach who saw a woman set fire to herself and run flaming into the surf. She's up at the burn center now. We can't talk to her. She was going into surgery when we heard about the incident last night."

"About three months ago, had a woman fill her car with gasoline," Campbell tells me. "I don't mean the tank. I mean the car. This is in broad daylight. It was a Volkswagen. She jumped in, drove a few blocks, and set it on fire."

"She do the job?" I ask.

Carle nods his head. "Had a woman in Point Loma did the same thing," Campbell recalls, "only it was a truck. She jumped in, set herself on fire. A gentleman ran up and said, 'Hey, what are you doing?' She just locked her door."

"There must be easier ways to go out," I say, "if that's what you wanna do."

"Ah," Campbell shrugs, "it's cheaper than a gun."

Later, when we pull up in front of my apartment, I realize it is the kind of building the midtown arsonist loves to torch. I realize quickly the building might burn and point this out to Carle and Campbell, who agree.

"Yeah, it looks like one of those Victorian jobs lawyers like to set up shop in."

"You need a sign," Campbell squints at the facade of the building as if picturing something. "No Lawyers Live Here."

Several weeks after these interviews, a suspect was apprehended in the midtown fire incidents. Neither Carle nor Campbell made the arrest, but Carle describes the circumstances this way:

"The guy was arrested downtown [in a welfare hotel] and gave some false ID. The officer did some checking and determined that this guy had been arrested previously for fire setting. We had been looking for this guy because of his record, wondering what his activities were. His name is Robert Fanning." Carle describes Fanning as a man in his 40s. "He's a guest of the state now, charged on a parole violation.

"My personal feelings," says Carle, "is that it is a little bit more than coincidence that we have this gentleman living downtown, and we have these problems, and this gentleman has the time to be out and about at this time of day [tie time of the fires] and that he has a previous history of that exact type of behavior. It is very hard to countenance any other suspects at this point. But he's not officially being charged at this point, although — oh, it would be nice.

"The thing is, if we don't get these guys within the first 36 to 48 hours, the trail gets pretty cold, and that's what we're dealing with. But I'm not a doomsayer. Maybe we'll come up with a guy who was with him or maybe heard him brag. Anything is possible."

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