Saturday, January 22, 2011

Arson Dog Helps Send Couple to Prison, Saves Chubb Insurance Co. Millions

A home security company notified several fire departments that a smoke detector at a house in Alexandria Township, New Jersey, was signaling. Emergency personnel arrived to find an intense fire burning down the 6,000 square foot residence. The owners, the Kellers, were outside. They had no injuries and their clothes showed no sign of soot or fire damage. They explained that they had awakened by the fire alarm and the smell of gasoline and told a state trooper that there had been gasoline in the garage and on the front porch. They told the trooper that the house had been listed for sale at $1 million because they had recently moved to Virginia. They asked to leave to go to a nearby motel. Trooper Sanders saw clothing and personal belongings inside their van.

The Kellers arrived at the Kingswood Police Station the next morning, where a detective asked permission to search their van. It was explained that consent was being sought to examine the vehicle and the Kellers’ clothing for accelerants. They agreed to the search. The police called the Morris Country Sheriff’s Office and asked to use Detective Richard Warnett and his arson dog, Hoka, to search the vehicle. The dog alerted inside the van on the rear floor behind the passenger side front seat, as well as in the rear cargo area. The dog did not alert to the Kellers' clothing but did alert to Irlene Keller’s shoes. At the scene of the fire, Hoka alerted to the floor area near the remains of the fireplace. This was consistent with the findings of a detective from the state police arson/bomb unit, who believed that irregular burn patterns suggested that an accelerant had been used. Three gasoline containers were also found. The detective concluded that “a flammable liquid substance” had been poured through the house. The detective also noted that there was not much personal property in the residence.

The state police detective obtained a warrant. On a search of the basement, “he detected a strong smell of chemicals. He located an empty, uncapped one-gallon container, labeled 'Parks xylene,' that had been turned upside down. Detective Ditzel knew xylene, a paint thinner, was an accelerant having almost the same chemical properties as gasoline. The container, lid, and samples of the liquid found on the floor were turned over to the New Jersey State Police Laboratory for testing.” A search of three detached barns revealed a considerable amount of personal property in boxes, items that might have rather been expected to be found in the house.

Laboratory tests of Irlene Keller’s shoes and nightgown tested positive for xylene, but it could not be ruled out that the chemical might have been used in their manufacture.

The Kellers submitted a fire loss claim for $1.7 million to the Chubb Insurance Company for the loss of the house and its contents. A senior adjustor denied the claim based on its own investigation and the facts uncovered by local authorities indicating that the fire was arson.

An agent with ATF found that the Kellers had purchased a home in Virginia shortly before, refinancing their New Jersey home to withdraw its equity for the necessary funds for the purchase.

The Kellers were prosecuted for aggravated arson, theft by deception, and conspiracy, and found guilty by a jury. They were sentenced to eight years in prison. Irlene Keller appealed her conviction, based largely on an argument that her consent to the search was not voluntary. The New Jersey appellate court rejected this and related arguments, and affirmed the conviction of the trial court. State v. Keller, 2010 WL 5346025 (N.J.App.Div. 2010)

According to news reports, the Kellers were sentenced in 2007 and paroled in 2009.

The case demonstrates that accelerant detection dogs are useful both to prosecutors and insurance companies. There was a good deal of non-canine evidence here, but insurance companies have not always carried the day. See Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Co. of Arkansas, Inc. v. Foote, 341 Ark. 105, 14 S.W.3d 512 (2000).

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