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Arsonists' trail less likely to grow cold

By Pedro Ruz Gutierrez

Stop computer-assisted crime

For years, crime analysts with the Division of State Fire Marshal used board pegs and wall maps to keep track of arsons and pyromaniacs.

When they wanted to know about related crimes or suspects in other parts of the state, they had to contact local agencies by phone or in person. Then, they had to sift through stacks of paper records to find an address, suspect or crime.

With the introduction of computer-assisted crime mapping software this year, analysts such as Tom Raulerson no longer rely on the rudimentary pins and cardboard maps.

"Up until now, we didn't have a way of tracking everything," Raulerson said as he cruised through colored maps and data on his laptop recently. "It's like going from the 1970s to the 2000s."

The agency's seven districts in the state handle from 6,000 to 7,000 fire investigations a year.

Of those, roughly 40 percent are arsons. The central district -- Osceola, Flagler, Volusia, Brevard, Orange and Seminole counties -- accounts for about a fifth of the total caseload. About half of 2,599 cases investigated in 2001 and 2002 were arson cases. In 2002, the central district made arrests in 27 percent of its arson cases.

Investigator Juan Bailey, who will benefit from Raulerson's research, said the new program will help him quickly identify problem areas and patterns.

In turn, that information will be passed on to other police agencies that may assign more patrol squads to "hot spots" in the hope of catching someone early.

"It's a new investigative tool that will help investigate more arsons and put more arsonists in jail," said Bailey of the Orlando office. "It allows us to focus more."

Raulerson, who shuttles between offices in Daytona Beach and Orlando, was one of 10 state analysts with the agency's Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigations who recently trained in Tallahassee to operate the new software. "At this point, it's in its infancy," he said.

With a few key strokes, Raulerson and his counterparts in seven districts will have instant access to other law-enforcement agencies' databases. In the past, information kept by one agency in one computer format was not compatible with the fire marshal's system. That led to overlooked statistics and reports, which would have proved valuable.

The new software will provide analysts and investigators more context and meaning behind these statistics.

"Often we may not have known that a fire happened at the same spot," said Ed Reed, a crime-intelligence analyst in the fire marshal's Jacksonville office. "Now in just seconds we can plot a map of Orlando and know all the fires that have occurred in the past five years."

It's that kind of knowledge that has state officials salivating with the introduction of the new software known as I-CAT or Integrated Crime Analysis Tool, which was developed by 4th Watch Systems.

"With present tools, analysts often have only statistics to help them identify crime trends," said Rand Napoli, director of the state fire marshal's office.

"Now our analysts will be able to create maps for our criminal investigators that track and group fires, saving hundreds of man-hours and making us more proactive in our investigations."

Raulerson said the software would probably have come in handy in the investigation of arsonist Richard Foronjy, a Deltona resident who torched a neighbor's home in December 2000.

Foronjy became a suspect after investigators noticed he was always first at the fire scenes after calling 911. He also was a neighborhood spokesman and headed a Neighborhood Watch group on the lookout for the arsonist.

"If someone had tracked and analyzed the information earlier, he would have been stopped earlier," Raulerson said.

Foronjy, who is serving a five-year sentence along with a 12-year sentence for possession of a handgun by a convicted felon, was suspected by authorities in as many as 14 house and car fires in the Hope Avenue neighborhood in 2000 and 2001.

At his trial, Volusia County prosecutors also said Foronjy was suspected in unsolved fires in Lake and Seminole counties, where he previously lived. He was not charged in those cases, but pleaded no contest to the blaze in Deltona.

Bailey, the Orlando investigator, said analysts have yet to take full advantage of the software's tools, but the potential is promising.

"If anyone is planning a fire to set, they picked the wrong state to do it in," he said.

Source: www.orlandosentinel.com

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