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Snuffed Out 

Massive layoffs, internal conflict, and decreasing morale have all contributed to a less effective arson unit.

Wednesday, Jan 13 2010

The Felton Street fire looked suspicious from the start. The two-story house in the Portola District that went up in flames in the early hours of Feb. 5, 2009, had no electricity. Plus, it was vacant. Vacant houses with no electricity typically don't spontaneously combust.

And then there was the matter of its owners, Nancy Jen and Laura Jen, the ex-wife and daughter of Jimmy Jen. He is a former city building agency employee with alleged connections to a string of fires associated with his San Francisco properties. That began in 1990, when a fire determined to be arson destroyed a house he owned in the Mission. In 1999, a fire broke out in an apartment of a woman who had fought to remain on a property where Jen wanted to build — the damage done by the fire forced her to move, and he began construction shortly after. In 2000, he was a suspect in an arson fire that broke out at the home of a neighbor, who reportedly told city authorities that Jen's construction on his own home had exceeded the limits of his building permit. Jen has repeatedly denied responsibility for any of these fires, and has not returned calls from SF Weekly.

When questioned about the Felton Street fire by the press at the time, Jen said he had nothing to do with it, and his former wife had a $250,000 insurance policy on the property that would barely cover half the damage.

Elmer Carr, who was captain of the San Francisco Fire Department's arson unit from 1995 until he retired in 2005, says he recognized Nancy Jen when she appeared on TV news reports. Although she was not a suspect in the Felton Street fire, Carr knew her former husband well from his alleged connection to previous fires.

One advantage of having some experience in the arson unit is recognizing potential suspects at the scene: 50 percent of the time, Carr says, arsonists will stay to watch the fires they set.

He also saw a picture of the firefighters at the scene. Their helmets were covered in tarlike soot, which gave a clue to the fire's origin. "Residue that thick and black in a residential house that was supposedly unoccupied tells me there was an accelerant," he said.

A week after investigators had sifted through charred evidence at the house, the fire department announced that the fire had been intentionally set. Local media reported that Jimmy Jen was a person of interest in the department's investigations. Pressure to find a suspect was especially high, as six firefighters were injured when the roof collapsed on them in a hallway of the house. One of them, Christopher Posey, nearly lost his life.

Months went by with no progress on the case. Jen, who also owes $1.4 million in fees for code violations, according to a representative for the city attorney's office, insisted he was being unfairly targeted as an arsonist. He had never been criminally charged with starting fires. And in the case of the Felton Street fire, there wasn't enough evidence to make an arrest.

Today, nearly a year later, the case is still open. But the responsibility for solving it has shifted to the public, in part evidenced by a notice on the San Francisco Fire Department's Web site that offers a $75,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the arsonist.

Carr thinks such reward notices may become more frequent because the arson unit is in crisis mode. Conflicts arose roughly a year ago when investigators learned their jobs were on the line and worsened when department heads tried to mitigate the strife, leaving what is supposed to be a cooperative unit rife with mistrust.

Last July, when massive budget cuts hit the SFFD, the arson unit took an unprecedented blow: Its staff was cut from 11 investigators and two officers to four investigators and one officer. Beyond that, a recent promotional exam meant that half of the remaining unit members had just a year of field experience, and the officer appointed to lead them had never officially worked as an arson investigator.

San Francisco once had one of the best arson units in the state, led by some of the best experts in the field. Today, there is talk that the unit might disappear altogether. Experienced fire investigators say the results of this decimation may not show in statistics or news reports right away, but that residents should be aware that the city has just made it easier for some of its most dangerous criminals — the ones who know to set fire to their crime scenes — to get away with arson.

Trouble at the arson unit headquarters heated up in July 2008, when the fire department announced it would be administering the first promotional exam since 1984. It would be a make-or-break deal: Top scorers would become investigators, and those who didn't make the cut would be moved to other positions in the department. As a result, those who got the boot would likely take a $15,000 to $20,000 pay cut, no matter how long they had worked there.

Tensions were already running high among the unit's members, but when the announcement came that they would be competing for the investigator jobs, things got even worse. Rumors spread, and soon turned to accusations, some of which traveled up the chain of command.

The unit split into study groups, and three experienced members were asked by department heads to help write a study guide for the exam. Although the guide covered basic knowledge all of the investigators should have had already, some thought management was playing favorites. Sources inside the unit say management also selectively enforced certain rules depending on who broke them.

As conflict continued to fester, an anonymous e-mail was sent from a computer at arson unit headquarters to department heads and news organizations, accusing certain investigators of fraud. The administration quickly confiscated the computer's hard drive, but have yet to disclose what evidence was found.

About The Author

Anna McCarthy


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