Officials: Arson probe in Ferguson could take years

The statute of limitations for the crime is three years, and investigators will be working right up until the deadline to make arrests


St. Louis Post-Dispatch

FERGUSON, Mo. — Tim Marrah believes that, normally, 2½ months would be plenty of time for police to find and arrest whoever broke out the windows of Ferguson Optical, where he is manager.

But given that it happened Nov. 24 — as protesters damaged, looted and set fire to dozens of businesses — Marrah accepts that his crime may never be solved. It involved only broken glass, he says, and belongs at the bottom of the stack for busy detectives.

“We just hope they get something resolved with the people who lost their businesses,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “We were just happy to come back and that our business was still here and it wasn’t burned or gutted out, so we were very fortunate.”

Police say Marrah has a good grasp on a challenge that may occupy them for years in a task spread across several law enforcement agencies to minimize disruption of their normal caseloads.

Officials said that of an estimated 400 looters seen on surveillance videos and photos, only 10 have been identified, and only one of them has been arrested and charged.

Still, St. Louis County police Detective Michael Byrne is optimistic. His department has been releasing batches of fresh images each week for about a month, and reward money is being offered.

During the next three weeks, the department plans to release images from businesses previously looted in August, shortly after Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown after a confrontation that started a national debate over policing and race. The Nov. 24 unrest came with the announcement that a grand jury did not indict Wilson.

In all, county police are investigating more than 40 lootings spread across Ferguson, Dellwood, Jennings, Black Jack and unincorporated areas of north St. Louis County.

“As time goes by, boyfriends and girlfriends break up, and I expect people will start to call us,” Byrne said. “But I’m a little disappointed in the level of feedback we’ve gotten from the public. So far, most of our leads have come from law enforcement who recognize these people.”

Byrne said he worked full time on these cases for about six weeks and has been able to add in his regular workload. Officers assigned to light duty have helped sift through seemingly endless hours of surveillance video to try to identify suspects and distribute the images to the public.

“If I could get all 400 charged, that would be great, but it’s not realistic,” he said.

Police believe several groups of looters went from business to business, based on what investigators can see.

Byrne said he is trying to obtain DNA from rocks, bricks, tire irons and other tools people used to break into businesses. That would at least help track those with prior felony records, whose DNA profiles should be in the national database.

He noted the statute of limitations on these types of crimes is three years, and he believes investigators will be working right up until the deadline to make the last of the arrests.

But investigators have seen progress.

Byrne noted that 26 people were arrested in connection with the lootings that November night.

And he believes that as culprits are arrested, they will implicate others.

Meanwhile, the St. Louis and St. Louis County police bomb and arson squads are working with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to investigate 26 associated arsons, a number that includes fires in vehicles as well as buildings.

“It’s a monumental task,” said John Ham, an ATF spokesman.

His agency summoned investigators from around the country to distinguish fires intentionally set from fires that spread from other burning buildings.

The ATF also has set up a hotline and an email account. Hundreds of messages have come in but nothing proved useful so far, he said.

The “few” valuable tips came from police who recognized suspects, Ham said.

“Without the public’s help, the chances of these fires being solved are very remote,” he said.

Ham said that while arson is always complicated to investigate, Ferguson-related cases are worse, because concerns about violence prevented firefighters from putting out the blazes as quickly as they ordinarily might.

“The fact that these fires had to burn as long as they burned, and number of people who went in and out of these scenes complicates our ability to bring closure to these,” Ham explained.

He said federal charges can be filed if an arson interferes with commerce — and automatically if a church is involved.

Like Byrne, Ham said he is hopeful that leads will start to come in.

“We’re confident that in all 26 fires, people other than the people who set them know who did it,” he said.

County police ask anyone with information to contact CrimeStoppers at 1-866-371-8477. The ATF email is Fergusonfires@atf.gov, and its tip line is 1-888-283-3473.

Copyright 2015 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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