In 2010, city firefighters were called to more than 20 fires that they suspected were deliberately set so that the homeowners could collect on their insurance.
But the police department was overwhelmed with other crimes to investigate, and if the arson didn’t kill anyone, it was rarely solved, Fire Capt. Doug Faulisi said.
Then the fire department set up an arson task force, which began investigating every fire and making arrests. So far this year, there have been only five insurance fraud arsons, Faulisi said.
“Previously, it wouldn’t get followed up on,” he said. “Unfortunately, the police department is very busy. Now I can develop leads and I can bring it to the police department and we can work together. We have the time to look into the fires that don’t make the headlines.”
Faulisi started calling insurance companies himself four years ago because of the rise in suspicious fires. In many cases, he said, firefighters suspected that the property owner had torched the building — but they didn’t have the time or resources to investigate it. Faulisi hoped that tipping off the insurance companies would help.
Still, they saw no decrease in the number of suspected insurance fraud arsons.
“Four years ago, of two-alarm fires, it was about one out of every three fires,” he said.
But arresting just a few landlords has done the trick, Faulisi said.
“Sometimes people think they can come up from New York City and become a landlord and start a fire and a small town like Schenectady wouldn’t catch them,” he said. “Now I think the word’s gotten around. They know if you do an arson fraud, you won’t get paid.”
The arson task force also works closely with insurance companies.
“Now we can go back to the building with the insurance company. We can show the insurance company our findings,” he said.
Even when the task force can’t prove that the fire was started intentionally, insurance companies will look at the entire claim more closely, he said.
He has provided photos of burnt televisions and destroyed furniture, which allows the insurance company to deny a claim for an 80-inch TV when the photo clearly shows a much smaller screen.
“We take pictures of everything,” he said. “People will make fraudulent claims.”
Fires set to claim insurance money may have decreased remarkably, but fires set for other reasons have not decreased.
The task force also investigates these other fires, and it has made key arrests and found causes for many suspicious fires.
Faulisi interviewed homeless people who live in vacant houses, offering them coffee and chatting with them to win their trust.
“A coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts and a conversation goes a long way,” he said.
That strategy led the task force to Tyrone Beebe, who was charged with setting fire to a vacant building.
But Faulisi’s coffee interviews also let the task force cross many other fires off their list of possible arsons.
In many cases, he said, the homeless confessed to accidentally starting the fire with a candle. So their only crime was trespassing, and Faulisi didn’t pursue that since the property owners did not bring charges.
“Honestly, what purpose is it going to serve, getting a homeless person for trespassing, when all they’re trying to do is stay warm?” he said.
He emphasized that the outreach took many hours, justifying the need for a task force. They closed out the cases “because I had the time to invest in talking to the homeless people.”
Task force investigations also led to the arrest of Nathan A. Perkins on five charges of arson.
“I suspected him for well more than the five he got arrested for,” Faulisi said. “But those were the ones he confessed to.”
After Perkins’ arrest, there was a sudden decrease in vacant building fires, Faulisi said.
However, that was short-lived. The fires are back up, he said.
Perkins is accused of setting fires when he was a teenager, and Faulisi said many other city teenagers are doing the same thing. When one grows up or gets caught, another one replaces him, Faulisi said.
He is now advising all parents to teach their children about the dangers of fires, even if their children do not fit the profile of a juvenile fire-starter.
He’s shown his young children pictures of burn victims to emphasize that fire can hurt people.
“Don’t sugarcoat it,” he said. “You don’t need to show live video of people running out of a fire with skin dripping off. But I don’t feel it harms them at all to show them a picture of someone who’s been burned.”
He’s also shown his children “In Their Own Voices,” a documentary about teenagers who set fires and got burned. Among other things, they describe how much the scars still hurt years later.
He also shows the documentary to juvenile fire-setters. “It’s great,” he said. “They say, ‘I didn’t know this could happen.’ ”
He’s hoping that such efforts will eventually reduce juvenile arson in Schenectady.
“I have seen less repeat offenders,” he said.
The task force has received help in tracking down those children as well as other arsonists. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has an office at the fire department, and an agent spends almost all of his time in Schenectady.
“We’ve received a ton of help from ATF,” Faulisi said. “They have resources outside the city. They can cross-reference a name.”
The agent, Mark Meeks, can look up a property owner’s history throughout the country, finding arson charges in other states and suspicious fires dating back decades. In one case, the agent was able to discover that a suspect’s mother, father and brother had a history of insurance fraud arsons in North Carolina and Florida, Faulisi said.
“ATF had a whole history of insurance fires with this family,” Faulisi said. “We did not know that. They’re a tremendous help.”