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Arson Investigation: Unveiling Truth in the Flames

Arson is the deliberate burning of property with bad intentions. It's a serious crime, often classified as a felony, especially when it poses a significant risk to people or property, leading to severe penalties. An arsonist is someone who commits an arson. Arsonists often use accelerants like gasoline or kerosene to start and control fires.

Pyromania is an impulse control disorder where individuals can't resist the urge to start fires, usually to relieve tension or for instant gratification. But it's important to note that most cases of arson aren't committed by pyromaniacs.

Arson becomes a white-collar crime when it's done for financial reasons, like insurance fraud or destroying business records. This kind of arson is a serious crime that can unintentionally harm or even kill people. Families can lose everything they have in such attacks.

Degrees of Arson
In the United States and many other countries, arson crimes are classified into different degrees based on factors such as the property's value, its occupancy, and the time of the crime.

First-Degree Arson: This involves intentionally setting fire to a building typically occupied by people.

Second-Degree Arson: It refers to intentionally setting fire to an unoccupied structure, often with the aim of making an insurance claim.

Third-Degree Arson: This category covers the intentional burning of abandoned buildings or areas, such as forests.

Motive of Arson
When fierce flames engulf a building, it may seem like they'll consume everything in their path, but fire investigators count on something different. Even in the aftermath of a devastating fire, some vital clues endure, helping them uncover arson � and possibly intent if lives were lost, turning it into a murder case.

One common motive behind arson is insurance fraud. Typically, when a struggling business owner removes their stock, they aim to sell it and make an insurance claim before setting fire to their warehouse or factory. Investigators carefully examine the remains for evidence that might contradict the claim. For instance, even if a fire destroys clothing in a textile warehouse, metal zippers and fastenings can often survive, raising suspicions if they're absent.

The motives behind arson can vary, but they generally fall into these categories:
  • To cause harm, or to cover up an earlier murder by making it look like an accident.
  • To enable a fraudulent insurance claim.
  • To eliminate evidence of another crime, like fraud, by destroying business records.
  • To compel a competing company to close its operations.
  • As an act of revenge.
  • For thrill-seeking, or to satisfy a compulsion to create and watch flames.

The Psychology of an Arsonist
Australian psychologist Rebecca Doley has spent over a decade studying serial arsonists, talking to more than 140 of them. According to her research, these individuals find more satisfaction in what happens after the fire than in the act of setting it. They get a sense of power from sticking around to witness the chaos they've created. Interestingly, the fear of getting caught doesn't stop them. Doley observed that they're aware of the consequences of their actions but still choose to go ahead with them.

Indian Scenario
The crime of arson is defined in the Indian Penal Code, 1860, under Sections 435 and 436 IPC.

Section 435 IPC
This section deals with mischief caused by fire or explosive substances with the intent to damage property worth one hundred rupees or more (or ten rupees or more for agricultural produce). The punishment for such an act can be imprisonment for up to seven years and a fine.

It covers the destruction of two types of property:
  1. Agricultural produce worth Rs. 10 or more.
  2. Any other property with damage valued at least Rs. 100.

The term "damage to any property" includes any change in the property that diminishes its value or utility or harms it in any way. This section deals specifically with mischief caused by fire or explosive substances, which can include things like phosphorus or dynamite.

In a court case (Ramchandra Govindrao Pachghare vs. Narayan Sitaramji Adhe), it was clarified that damaging or setting fire to someone else's property, even if it's a small item like a walking stick or a watch left on their field, is not justified and will attract punishment under section 435 IPC.

Essential ingredients of the offence under Section 435 IPC:
  • Mischief was committed by the accused. (Mischief: Section 426 IPC).
  • Mischief was caused by fire or an explosive substance.
  • The damage amounted to Rs. 100 or more, unless it's agricultural produce, in which case it should be Rs. 10 or more.
  • The accused intended or knew that such damage would likely occur.
This offense under Section 435 IPC is cognizable, bailable, but not compoundable. Aa Magistrate of the First Class can try this case.

Section 436 IPC
This section deals with mischief caused by fire or explosive substances with the intent to destroy a building ordinarily used as a place of worship, human dwelling, or a place for property custody. The punishment for this crime can be imprisonment for life or imprisonment for up to ten years, along with a fine.

To be considered a building, it doesn't have to be a finished structure made of bricks and mortar; even a structure made of straw can qualify if it has doors, bars, and furnishings typically found in buildings. However, a simple wooden cabin that is removable may not qualify as a building.

Essential ingredients of the offence punishable under Section 436 IPC:
  • Mischief was committed by the accused. (Mischief: Section 426 IPC).
  • Mischief was caused by fire or an explosive substance.
  • It destroyed or damaged a building.
The building was ordinarily used as:
  • A place of worship
  • A human dwelling
  • For safekeeping property
  • The burning was done wilfully or maliciously to constitute arson.

This offense under Section 436 is cognizable, non-bailable, and triable by a Court of Session

Attempt of Arson
In a case called Malkiat Singh v. the State of Punjab; (1969) 1 S.C.C. 157, the court ruled on the topic of attempting arson. They explained that if several people plan to set fire to a haystack, and one of them buys a box of matches, that person or the others in the plan can't be convicted of attempting arson just because they intended to set fire to the haystack when they bought the matches.

However, if someone in the group approaches the haystack with the box of matches in their pocket and then bends down near the stack, trying to light a match but stopping when they realize they're being watched, in that case, they and the others involved in the plan might be guilty of attempting to burn the haystack.

United Kingdom Scenario
In the UK, there are about 2,100 fire-setting incidents every week, which include arson attacks on vehicles. Over the past decade, there have been 2.4 million recorded arson fires, costing an estimated �3 billion each year.

In the USA, there are over 63,000 arson offences reported annually, causing an average of �180,000 in damage to industrial and manufacturing buildings. Arson attacks in the USA lead to about 4,000 deaths and 20,000 injuries each year.

Australian Scenario
The practice of deliberately setting fires by Australian Aboriginals may appear as arson to some, but it isn't officially classified as such by the Australian government. These Indigenous peoples, who have been in Australia for around 50,000 years, have been using controlled fires for land management long before European settlers arrived. These fires are so significant that Aboriginals have distinct names for various types of them.

Even as modern agricultural practices have reduced the need for these fires, some Aboriginal communities continue the tradition. Occasionally, these fires can lead to property damage or livestock losses. However, the Australian government doesn't consider this fire-setting malicious because the intent is not to destroy or harm property. As a result, it isn't classified as arson, except in cases where traditional arson elements are present.

Arson Investigation
When investigators arrive at a fire scene, their first task is to talk to any witnesses nearby. These could be people who called for help or arrived before the emergency services. They might have valuable information about where and how the fire started and might even have taken pictures.

Once the fire is brought under control and the area cools down, safety becomes a top concern. Investigators face obvious dangers like the risk of the building collapsing. There are also hidden hazards like asbestos, toxic beryllium oxide (used for electrical insulation), and cancer-causing substances produced during combustion.

Determining where and how the fire ignited is a crucial goal for investigators. Arsonists often try to conceal their actions and may set fires in multiple places. Accidental fires typically start in one location, and the point of origin is usually evident.

To find the fire's point of origin in a burnt, chaotic scene, investigators rely on their experience and observations. Fire travels upward, so they begin their search at lower levels. Clues leading them to the source of the fire include lingering heat, depth of charring, splintering of building materials like plaster and concrete, smoke patterns, damage to plastic, glass, and metal, ceiling damage, and structural collapse patterns.

Once they locate the fire's origin, investigators search for what caused it. Arsonists use accelerants like petrol to start fires quickly and incendiary devices to ignite them. These devices can range from complex electronic timers to something as simple as a burning cigarette in a matchbook. Remarkably, traces of both accelerants and incendiary devices often survive the intense flames they're meant to ignite.

Detecting arson doesn't require expertise; certain odours like unburned hydrocarbon fuels, solvents, and paint thinners can give it away. Liquid accelerants leave distinct marks on the floor, like irregular, well-defined puddle shapes. Investigators may also spot burn patterns along the edges of floorboards, indicating the flow of burning liquid between them.

When there are no obvious signs, investigators use hydrocarbon detectors to locate traces of accelerants. Suspicious items are carefully collected and sent to a lab for analysis. These items need special storage because accelerants are volatile and can evaporate if not stored properly. To prevent this, investigators use containers with secure vapor seals like screw-cap jars, metal drums, or polyvinylidene bags.

Sifting of Evidence of Arson
Despite the apparent destruction caused by fire, several clues can guide investigators toward arson. Discovering the fire's "seat" or point of origin helps uncover how it began and spread. Accidental fires typically spread upward, forming a downward-pointing 'V' shape from their origin. Deliberately set fires may have multiple 'vs' where an arsonist ignited separate blazes. These fires might travel unnaturally across the floor, suggesting the use of accelerants like petrol or paint thinners. Non-burning accelerants can leave behind distinct odours, and liquid accelerants often leave pool marks on the floor.

Arson investigators approach burnt debris much like forensic examiners at a crime scene. They identify and carefully collect evidence for later laboratory tests and court proceedings. Wearing protective gear, their tools include digital and video cameras, notebooks, pens, knives, screwdrivers, hammers, crowbars, evidence tags, tape, and containers to preserve the evidence.

Conventional Investigation
A comprehensive examination of the crime scene can either support or dismiss suspicions of arson. In particular, investigators assess whether alarm or sprinkler systems were intentionally tampered with. They also examine the tracks around the building and how someone got in and out.

Investigators employ standard tools like written notes, sketches, measurements, photographs, and videos. They pay special attention to the position and orientation of partially burnt items, like furniture, as the burn patterns reveal which side faced the source of the fire.

Instruments of Detection
Back at the laboratory, technicians employ gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) to pinpoint the accelerants. They usually work with the vapor emitted by the evidence when heated, which accumulates in the headspace (the air above the sample in a sealed container).

Volatile substances in the container produce distinctive peaks on the GC/MS graph, and a computer database helps identify them. Infrared spectroscopy is sometimes used in a similar way, especially for identifying burned plastics and synthetic materials. Lab work may also involve a microscopic examination of the evidence to search for any incendiary devices.

If there were fatalities in the fire, autopsy reports become part of the investigation. For instance, if there are no signs of smoke inhalation, it suggests the individual was already deceased when the fire began, hinting at a possible homicide.

Fire Tools
Here are the tools that investigators use and their purposes:
Hand Torch: Simple tools like torches are indispensable because blackened buildings often lose their electricity supply, and investigators need light to work safely.

Gas Analysis Kit: This kit contains diagnostic crystals within a tube that change colour when exposed to traces of accelerants in the air. A bellows draws air through the tube for analysis.

Axe: An axe comes in handy for removing smaller pieces of evidence without the risk of contamination.

Chainsaw: Investigators rely on heavy-duty cutting equipment like chainsaws to remove flooring that may have absorbed accelerants. It's essential to use chainsaws carefully to prevent fuel spills that could contaminate evidence.

Case Study
Best Bakery Case (1st March 2002)
The Best Bakery case, which took place on March 1, 2002, in Vadodara, Gujarat, involved a mob targeting the Sheikh Family who ran the bakery. Tragically, 11 Muslims, including family members, and 3 Hindu employees lost their lives. This incident symbolized the violence during the 2002 Gujarat Riots, with allegations of government interference.

Initially, 21 individuals were accused but were acquitted due to issues with police custody and a lack of evidence. However, nine of them were later convicted of murder based on eyewitness accounts and sentenced to life imprisonment.

On July 9, 2012, the Bombay High Court upheld life sentences for four of the nine convicted individuals, while the other five were acquitted due to insufficient evidence. This case was linked to the Godhra riots and was the first trial related to those events.

Godhra Train Burning (27 February 2002)
The Godhra Train Burning, which occurred on February 27, 2002, resulted in the deaths of 59 people due to a fire inside the Sabarmati Express train near Godhra Railway station in Gujarat. These victims were Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya after a religious ceremony at the then disputed site of Babri Masjid.

This tragic event is widely seen as the catalyst for the Gujarat Riots that followed, causing extensive loss of life, property destruction, and displacement.

A study by the Gujarat Forensic Science Laboratory revealed that around 60 litres of inflammable liquid had been poured inside the train coaches using a wide-mouthed container, and the fire was set immediately. The report also noted heavy stone pelting on the train.

In February 2011, a trial court convicted 31 people and acquitted 63 others, asserting that the incident was a planned conspiracy. The convictions were based on various sections of the Indian Penal Code, Railway Act, and Police Act. Among the 31 convicted, 11 were sentenced to death, while 20 received life imprisonment.

The Gujarat High Court later commuted the death sentences of the 11 accused to life imprisonment and acquitted the 63 accused once again. The court also ordered the government and railways to pay a compensation of 10 lakh to the victims.

  1. Crimew Scene, the ultimate guise to forensic science, Richard Platt, A Dorling Kindersley Book
  2. Crime Investigation, Evidence, Clues and Forensic Science, John D. Wright, Parragon
Written By: Md. Imran Wahab, IPS, IGP, Provisioning, West Bengal
Email: [email protected], Ph no: 9836576565

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