The mission of the Arson Task Force is to provide the citizens of Essex County with an efficient and effective means to combat arson and other fire-related offenses. Formed in 1998, the Arson Task Force operates as a multi-jurisdictional agency within the Prosecutor’s Office, working to fulfill its mission by bringing together and utilizing the talents and resources of experienced and dedicated fire, police and prosecutorial personnel in a manner that maximizes results while minimizing taxpayer expense.
The Arson Task Force has established itself as an invaluable resource for fire and police departments throughout the County. In addition to fire scene investigation, the Arson Task Force is committed to providing all fire investigators in Essex County with training opportunities to meet standards of performance and expertise needed for successful case investigation, preparation, and prosecution.
Most field investigations conducted by the Arson Task Force result from a request by a local police or fire agency for assistance. The Arson Task Force operates under the aegis of a Prosecutorial Memorandum issued in February of 1999 to all local fire and police departments, which sets out policies and procedures for fire investigations. Included in this memorandum is a Protocol for Notification (the “Protocol”) to be followed by all local departments.
The Protocol requires all local departments to immediately notify the Arson Task Force of a number of fire-related situations, including: suspicious fires that cause significant property damage; fires in which civilians and/or emergency personnel are killed or injured; multiple-alarm fires; fires at places of worship and county buildings; and incidents involving incendiary or explosive devices. These notifications are made through the Sheriff’s Office Communications Center, which is provided with a schedule of on-call Arson Task Force investigators. Once notified, the on-call investigator (in consultation with the Director and/or a superior officer) decides whether or not the Arson Task Force will respond, and then immediately advises the requesting agency of the decision.
An Arson Task Force investigator responding to a fire scene after receiving a notification assumes the role of lead investigator, working with local fire and police departments until the investigation is completed. The Arson Task Force investigator will, if necessary, make requests for assistance from units within the Prosecutor’s Office (e.g. Crime Scene Unit), other cooperating agencies (e.g. Sheriff’s Canine Unit, federal ATF), and/or professionals with a particular expertise (e.g. licensed electricians). The Director of the Arson Task Force is available, usually at the scene, to provide legal advice, assist in obtaining search warrants or other legal process, and to oversee the investigation to optimize the success of any ensuing prosecution. If the investigation results in any arrests, the Director is responsible for prosecution of the individuals charged.
If the on-call Arson Task Force investigator decides not to respond to a notification, the Protocol requires the requesting local agency to conduct the investigation according to recognized guidelines, and to provide the Arson Task Force with all investigative reports. The Director is still available, via telephone, to respond to any legal inquiries arising from a local agency’s investigation.
Not all fire-related incidents fall within the notification requirements of the Protocol, in which case local departments retain primary responsibility for fire investigation. However, a local department may still request assistance from the Arson Task Force, and if appropriate, a joint investigation may be initiated after the preliminary investigation has been conducted. In any event, all departments are required to obtain the review and approval of the Director before any fire-related charges are filed in any case. This provision is designed to ensure that investigations have been properly concluded, and that complaints are filed only in cases with a substantial likelihood of success.
By far, the largest numbers of fire-related incidents not covered by the Protocol are vehicle fires, of which there are hundreds a year in Essex County. Absent some other factor (e.g. felony vehicle, county-owned vehicle), investigations of vehicle fires remain the responsibility of local departments. Most cases involving vehicle fires are directly presented to the Grand Jury, rather than being initiated by way of complaint. This procedure allows an Assistant Prosecutor to supervise the gathering of all information about a case, and to thereafter make a determination of a case’s prospects for successful prosecution only after all available and relevant information has been received and reviewed.
All Arson Task Force investigators respond on a rotating basis, 24 hours a day, to fires throughout the County. At fire scenes, the investigators assume primary responsibility for conducting investigations, in conjunction with local fire and police officials. On-scene responsibilities include origin and cause investigations, gathering physical evidence, taking photographs, interviewing witnesses, and coordinating the efforts of all other investigators. Post-scene responsibilities include follow-up interviews, gathering of official and financial records, filing of criminal complaints, etc.
In 2014, the Arson Task Force investigated 53 structure fires in Essex County. The structure fires resulted in 19 fatalities. These include the following incidents:
In addition, the Arson Task Force investigated 28 vehicle fires in 2014. These investigations often include an origin and cause determination, crime scene analysis, collection and submission of evidence to the NJ Regional Forensic Science Laboratory, obtaining communication data warrants and search warrants, as well as additional investigative actions.
The following is a sample of some of the criminal cases which were lodged in 2014 subsequent to Investigation by the Arson Task Force.
State v. Omar Hawkins – Defendant started fire at ex-girlfriend’s apartment due to her breaking up with him. Charged with attempted murder and aggravated arson. Surveillance video captured him starting fire. Charges are pending.
State v. Kurulla John – Insurance fraud charges emanated from numerous unexplained fires which occurred in various properties the defendant owns. Charges are pending.
State v. Ebony Copeland – Defendant set fire at rooming house. Mental health issues exist. Defendant pled and was sentenced.
State v. James Lewter – Defendant set fire to his girlfriend’s bedroom mattress because she broke up with him. He was indicted for aggravated arson. Charges are pending.
State v. Rasheem Gadson – Defendant hired an individual to burn his car due to high lease payments. Defendant pled and is pending sentence.
State v. Carlos Monte-Morales – Defendant hired an individual to burn his car due to high lease payments. Defendant was indicted and charges are pending.
State v. Michael Benkowski/ Shareef Nash – Defendants engaged in a plan to set fire to bus belonging to the campaign of the Newark Mayor. Charges are pending.
Essex County’s geographic location and network of highways offer an easily accessible and inviting locale for individuals looking for a place to burn a vehicle. With the benefit of continuing financial assistance from the New Jersey Office of the Insurance Fraud Prosecutor, the Vehicle Fire Initiative has continued its ground-breaking work in the investigation of insurance-related vehicle fires. This highly technical, painstakingly in-vestigative and prosecutorial effort has made the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office the subject of several laudatory press reports. In the present difficult economic climate, these efforts will be redoubled to identify and prosecute those cases in which fire is used to evade onerous lease or financing payments.
Highly trained and qualified Arson Task Force personnel examine the remains of burned automobiles, such as the one in the above photograph, to determine whether the fire was intentionally set. This expertise is crucial to fulfilling the Arson Task Force’s commitment to reducing insurance fraud.