On July 21, 2012, at 0120 hours, Engine 38 responded to the report of a vehicle fire at 800 N Sanford Ave in Wilmington. Upon arrival, Engine 38 observed a 2006 Pontiac G6 stopped in the middle of the road with what appeared to be recent front end damage and its hazard lights flashing.
Captain Senior of Engine 38 instructed his firefighters to secure the vehicle and render any necessary medical aid. When the firefighters opened the doors they discovered that the vehicle had been abandoned and they smelled the distinct odor of gasoline. In addition, the firefighters discovered that there was severe smoke staining to the vehicle’s interior and minor charring to its front seats. On the front passenger seat there was a yellow, five-gallon gasoline container along with a partially burnt cigarette that had been placed under the container. The gasoline container and cigarette had been placed in such a way as to serve as a time delay device. The windows had been rolled up and the doors shut. The fire was starved of oxygen and self-extinguished resulting in the interior damage and incomplete combustion.
Recognizing these indications of arson along with the physical evidence, Captain Senior requested an Arson Unit response. A-Unit-1 responded and when arson investigators arrived on scene they confirmed Captain Senior’s origin and cause determination and began to document the scene including taking photographs, determining vehicle ownership, and collecting/packaging evidence. Arson investigators collected three items of evidence (the gasoline container, the liquid inside the container, and the partially burned cigarette). All the evidence items were submitted to the laboratory for analysis.
Follow-up investigation determined that the vehicle had been reported stolen two days previous and that the owner had no idea who had stolen and burned the vehicle. Shortly afterward the investigation went cold and the case was placed into the inactive status.
Approximately six months later arson investigators received a DNA match to the partially burned cigarette. The DNA on the cigarette belonged to Fernando Garcia Jr. Garcia was a convicted felon who had served time for multiple burglaries, firearm violations, and for controlled substance possession/sales. During an interview with Garcia, he self-admitted that he was a member of the “Eastside Wimas” criminal street gang, and that he no affiliation with the burned vehicle or its owner.
Based on the DNA match to the cigarette/gasoline container delay device, Garcia was arrested for arson and felony charges were filed by the District Attorney’s Office. On February 20, 2013, Garcia was scheduled for a preliminary hearing. However, even before the preliminary hearing could take place, Garcia took a plea deal and pled guilt to one count of 451(d) PC (Arson of Property) which is a Strike under California’s Three-Strikes Law, and was sentenced on February 11, 2013, to three years in state prison.
Engine 38 and its members should be commended for their recognition of vital physical evidence and for preserving the fire/crime scene for arson investigators. Forensic evidence is playing an increasing larger role in the identification and prosecution of arsonists.
Members are reminded that all items left at the fire scene may be considered evidence until proven otherwise. Rehydration containers such as water or Gatorade bottles and other discarded materials will contain the user’s DNA and should not be left on-scene. The last thing any firefighter should want is to have their DNA stored forever in any criminal database. Remember not to touch items of evidence if at all possible. However, if items of evidence have to be moved for suppression or preservation purposes, please remember to wear gloves and document who moved the items and where their original location was.
Thanks to the hard work of the Arson/Counter Terrorism Section and members of Engine 38, this habitual violent criminal offender has been taken off the streets. In addition, upon his release, Garcia will have to register as an arsonist for the rest of his life.