Editor's note: Steven A. Meyerowitz, Esq., is a director of FC&S Legal. FC&S and PC360 are both owned by Summit Professional Networks.
A decision by an appellate court in Michigan, affirming a jury’s conviction of Audrey Devonne Pruitt on charges of arson of a dwelling home, burning of insured property, and insurance fraud, illustrates how fire investigators, insurance companies, and prosecutors put an arson case together.
In December 2008, Mary Liddell sold a home located in Buena Vista Township, Michigan, to Audrey Devonne Pruitt. Ms. Pruitt purchased the home on a $9,000 land contract, putting $700 down and making payments of $350 per month. The land contract required that Pruitt obtain renter’s insurance and that Liddell maintain her homeowner’s insurance on the property. The contract also indicated that if anything happened to the home, Pruitt would not receive any proceeds from Liddell’s insurance. While the land contract did not require Pruitt to obtain homeowner’s insurance, she nonetheless entered into a homeowners insurance policy with State Auto Insurance on September 4, 2009, insuring the home for $87,000 and personal property for $60,900.
Two months later, on November 10, 2009, the home caught fire. Diana Diaz, who lived across the street from Pruitt, was looking through her living room window when she saw Pruitt’s truck go by and then saw smoke billowing from Pruitt’s roof. Diaz called 911.
Patrick Brown, who resided next to Diaz, was outside smoking a cigarette on the morning of the fire and saw Pruitt drive to a stop sign at the end of the street. Brown went inside, got something to eat and, when he came back out, saw smoke coming from Pruitt’s home.
Another neighbor, David Thomas, also was outside that morning when he looked up and saw black smoke coming from Pruitt’s home. As Thomas started toward Pruitt’s home, he saw Pruitt driving down the street. Thomas ran toward Pruitt’s car and tried to get her attention by yelling her name and waving, but Pruitt kept driving. Thomas then walked over to Diaz, who was in her front yard and confirmed that she already had called 911. According to Thomas, fire trucks arrived 10 to 15 minutes later.
Firefighters received a call from dispatch at 9:37 a.m. and arrived at Pruitt’s home at 9:53 a.m. Upon arrival, grayish-brown smoke was escaping from eaves and soffits of Pruitt’s home, suggesting that a “heavy working structure fire” was inside. According to one of the firemen, the fire had spread to the living room along the ceiling but was most intense along the back wall of the kitchen between the refrigerator and the stove; a burnt “v” pattern on the wall at that location indicated the fire’s point of origin. The firefighters extinguished the fire and the fire captain conducted an investigation of the property that same day.
At the criminal trial of Pruitt, Fire Captain Craig Gotham, qualified as an expert in fire cause and origin, testified that he investigated the cause of the fire after it was extinguished. He testified that he ruled out accidental causes because the refrigerator’s electrical wiring and the stove’s gas fitting were “clean.” He found a can of aerosol starting fluid (ether) by a loveseat that was burnt at its spray-nozzle. Gotham also testified that he talked to Pruitt on the day of the fire. She told him that she left her home around 9:30 that morning to go shopping with her mother and that she had cooked breakfast sandwiches approximately an hour earlier. She also indicated that she did not smoke or use incense or candles.
Keith LaMont, a Michigan State Police forensic analyst, testified that he tested some charred remains taken from the home, but found no ignitable liquid within the samples. LaMont explained that ignitable liquid, such as the starter fluid found in Pruitt’s home, could have been used but been completely consumed by the fire. This was because the ether contained in the starter fluid found at the scene was “very volatile” and could either evaporate or be quickly consumed by the fire, thereby decreasing the likelihood of its detection.
David Row testified that he had been involved in nearly 2,000 fire investigations since 1991 and had acquired 2,500 hours of training in fire investigation, some of which included “fire testing,” where a fire was created and extinguished in a controlled setting for educational purposes. Based on this training and experience, Row was qualified as an expert in the field of fire investigation. Row testified that there were “four processes” used in conjunction to establish the origin of the fire, including witness information, burn pattern analysis, arc mapping, and fire dynamics evaluation.
Row indicated that he began his investigation by questioning Pruitt regarding her activities on the day of the fire. Row said that Pruitt told him that she left the home around 9:30 on the morning of the fire. Row also took into consideration the observations of Diaz.
Row then recounted to the jury his visual observations of the exterior and interior of the home, displaying photographs he had taken during his investigation. He testified that both the gas and electric meters were intact and that neither could have caused the fire. Row said that, once inside the home, he systematically went through the rooms and observed evidence of fire damage. According to Row, he was able to rule out certain rooms as the origin of the fire based on the level of damage to personal belongings in the rooms. Based on his observations of low-level burn damage in the kitchen, Row testified that the origin of the fire was an empty “Rubbermaid or Hefty style 33 gallon” garbage can between the stove and refrigerator at or near floor level. The fire damage in this area extended all the way to the floor, where the trashcan had “melted down into a big blob of plastic.” Row testified that analysis of the refrigerator cord indicated that it was not the cause of the fire.
Having determined the origin of the fire, Row explained that his next task was to determine its cause. Row testified that two considerations were relevant in this regard, including what material was ignited and what ignition source was hot enough to start the fire, as well as witness statements. Row then stated:
So in this particular case, what I believe was ignited was the trashcan and whatever contents there may have been in the trashcan. This is a pretty thick plasticized material. I’ve done quite a bit of testing on these garbage cans to see, you know, how easily they burn versus, you know, how difficult it is to keep them burning, and part of it depends on what was put inside the trashcan in order to help the trashcan catch fire.
But the biggest issue in this particular circumstance is that I have been able to, by my process of elimination here, and by my scientific methodology that I’ve followed, I have been able to establish that there is no electrical, mechanical, or chemical causation for this fire, so the only other plausible explanation is there had to be some kind of an introduction of an open flame to this trashcan and the contents of this trashcan in order for it to be able to ignite.
Row then repeated that Pruitt told him she left her home at 9:30 a.m. and that Diaz saw smoke emanating from the home’s soffit area as Pruitt drove away. Row then explained, "Now, this is a 1,090 square foot house.... So I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and say this is approximately 9,000 cubic feet of air that now has to be displaced with smoke to the point where the smoke is now under pressure and it’s forcing itself out through the eaves....
"So, what then could generate 9,000 cubic feet of smoke in that short of a period of time? And based upon my observations of where the origin of the fire is and what the causation of the fire is, i.e., an open flame application to the trashcan, that trashcan could not have generated 9,000 cubic feet of smoke in the time it would have taken her to basically get into her car and drive down the street.... It just isn’t physically possible.
"...[T]he fire would have had to have been in progress generating that kind of smoke at the time when [Pruitt] left the house...."
The insurance claim
On February 9, 2010, Pruitt submitted a claim to State Auto, estimating the amount of loss from the fire at $118,035 and claiming $500. State Auto deemed this statement of loss inadequate and requested another, which Pruitt submitted on March 19, 2010. This time, Ms. Pruitt estimated the amount of loss to be $116,025 and claimed $116,025.
State Auto and Pruitt completed an inventory of Pruitt’s personal items, which was composed of multiple pages of personal property less than one year old and listed several expensive items such as a sewing machine, commercial meat slicer, and a DJ mixing table. The inventory did not, however, list any sewing-related materials, such as needles, thread, or cloth, and did not include the amplifier necessary for the DJ table to function.
Upon further investigation, State Auto found that Pruitt’s reported income in 2009 was only $5,800, while the inventory indicated that Ms. Pruitt had purchased personal property totaling approximately $23,000 within the past year. State Auto’s investigation also determined that the fire was intentionally set and that witnesses had seen Pruitt driving away from her burning home. Because an intentional act was not covered under the policy, State Auto denied Pruitt’s claim.
Subsequently, Pruitt was charged with and convicted of arson of a dwelling house, arson of insured property, and insurance fraud. The trial court sentenced Pruitt to 30 months to 20 years in prison for arson of a dwelling house, 5 months to 10 years for burning insured property, and 17 months to 4 years for insurance fraud.
The appellate court’s decision
The appellate court affirmed the conviction, finding “ample admissible evidence” to support the jury’s guilty verdicts.
Among other things, the appellate court pointed out that Row had offered admissible testimony that an open flame in the trashcan started the fire, that the smoke analysis and witness testimony regarding when Pruitt left the home allowed for the conclusion that Pruitt was in the home when the fire started, and that multiple witnesses had testified that they saw Pruitt driving away from her home as smoke billowed from the home’s eaves – the inference being that Pruitt was in the home for a somewhat extended period after the fire started.
Moreover, the appellate court continued, consistent with these witness statements, Pruitt told Captain Gotham on the day of the fire that she left home at 9:30 a.m. Later, the appellate court noted, Pruitt “attempted to dispel the inference that she had been in the home when the fire started by telling State Auto that she left the home at 8:50 a.m.” These “arguably false exculpatory statements” could be considered as “evidence of guilt,” the appellate court explained.
The appellate court also pointed out that, just two months before the fire, Pruitt had obtained an insurance policy ensuring the home for $87,000, an amount far in excess of the $9,000 Ms. Pruitt agreed to pay for the home under the land contract, “suggesting a motive for arson.”
Moreover, it continued, several expensive non-functioning items, including a commercial meat slicer and sewing machine, were found in Pruitt’s home, “likewise suggesting that [Pruitt] put them there so that she could collect insurance proceeds from their loss.” Indeed, the appellate court stated, Pruitt’s insurance policy with State Auto insured $60,900 worth of personal property and Pruitt’s personal property inventory indicated that she had purchased $23,000 of personal property in the past year, even though she only had made about $5,000.
Finally, the appellate court stated, Gotham testified that neither the stove nor the refrigerator caused the fire.
Accordingly, the appellate court affirmed the conviction, and upheld the trial court’s sentencing of Pruitt.
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