Fire Cop Smokes Out Arsonists

Paul Bass PhotoAlex had a story to tell about a guy who was bragging about how he “should have finished” what he “started.” Mike Torre couldn’t wait to hear it.

Torre is a New Haven police detective. He loves the job, especially moments like this one, when a potential witness wants to drop another piece into a case he has been assembling.

“I look at it as a jigsaw puzzle,” Torre said of a criminal investigation. “It’s strewn across the table. I like getting out there, talking to people. When I get a witness who says, ‘I saw something,’ I get excited.”

Torre reports to work each day at fire headquarters, not police headquarters. He has been doing so for going on five years. His beat is investigating potential arson, as the cop assigned to a joint NHFD-NHPD arson squad (aka “Fire Investigation Unit”).

On this particular day, he spoke with Alex about a garage fire in the Hill. Alex added a final piece to complete the puzzle, and Torre succeeded in obtaining a warrant for his arrest.

He’s done that repeatedly. Torre has so far this year made eight arrests of alleged fire-starters as a result of the work he has done with the rest of the team; he has five more arrest warrant applications awaiting approval from the state’s attorney and a judge. Last year saw ten arrests. Until recently, New Haven might have seen one or two such arrests a year, according to Fire Capt. Ray Saracco, the arson squad’s supervisor.

Torre’s work earned him an award this month from the International Association of Fire Investigators: Connecticut fire investigator of the year. 

“Many of these cases would not be solved and people responsible would still be free roaming our neighborhoods” if not for Torre’s “hard work and dedication,” city Fire Marshal Bobby Doyle wrote in a support letter for the award.

At A High Point

Cops and firefighters are not always known for working well together in New Haven. Turf battles or rivalries can divide them.

The arson squad has proved different.

“The team works well together. They also work with the ‘alphabets’” — federal agencies like the FBI and ATF — observed police Sgt. Rob Clark, Torre’s supervisor within the NHPD.

“Task forces ebb and flow. These guys are at a high point.”

The squad formed in the 1970s, when arson-for-profit schemes plagued city neighborhoods. The squad ebbed for a while. Torre and Saracco have helped infuse it with new energy, and since becoming fire marshal, Doyle has made building up the unit a priority.

Torre, who’s 47, already had good relationships with the fire department by the time he joined the arson squad in February 2013. As a rookie patrolling Newhallville on the night shift, he would stop at the Goffe Street fire station for a food break. He’d hang with Saracco, who was starting his fire career then. Nineteen years later, they’re working side by side on the arson squad.

Torre has also worked with firefighters over the years as an organizer of the annual Chief’s Cup hockey match, at which the NHFD and NHPD square off to raise money for charity and honor heroes from both departments.

Torre wanted to be a cop since growing up in Hamden; he heard about the job from two of his father’s cousins, who worked for the NHPD. After graduation from Southern Connecticut State University, he followed his dad’s path at first, into a sales job. In 1998 he made the switch to the police force to pursue his dream.

Since then Torre has worked patrol, narcotics, and domestic violence assignments. Enjoyed it all, he said. He built a reputation as a hard worker. Then he was tapped to fill the arson squad slot over at the fire department, where, he said, he threw himself into the work. He said it has the same appeal as his previous posts: solving puzzles, getting out to speak with people, and operating as a member of a team.

Karlsdale Catch

Contributed PhotoThe case of the fire in the Hill demonstrates how Torre and the team piece together those puzzles. Also how, unlike on TV, the process is methodical, low on glitz, and high on the careful assembling of evidence.

The fire occurred on April 14 in the back of a two-family house on Greenwich Avenue. Firefighters had put out the fire easily; no one was hurt. But it looked suspicious. So Torre got the call to head over.

As with, say, a homicide case, it always makes sense to hit the scene in the “first 48” hours, he said, to find witnesses and fresh evidence.

Saracco was already on the case. He’d spoken with a man named Abimeal who rented space in that garage to work on a second car he owned. He told Saracco he’d seen a tenant named José behind the house “moments before the fire started.” He saw the man “hide something in a blue recycle bucket and then walk away quickly to the front of the house.” Then the fire started.

So the team had its likely suspect from the start. But to make an arrest the investigators had to develop a case. They had to prove it.

José‘s wife told Torre and Saracco that José had recently stopped taking medication prescribed for “psychiatric reasons” and had been arrested for assaulting another tenant “for no reason.” She also said she thought he had “bought something” to start the fire from the nearby Eddy’s Food Center on Howard Avenue.

Torre and Saracco met again with Abimeal to glean more details. He provided those details, according to the arrest warrant affidavit Torre would eventually write: He said before the fire José “had a small bag” from which he withdrew “a windshield washer bottle and a white bottle of lighter fluid.” He said he saw José “mess around” with orange chairs and garbage cans. He heard “what sounded like a cigarette lighter,” then saw José, who wore blue latex gloves, “walk over to the rear stairs and put the white bottle of lighter fluid in the small recycle bucket.” José walked quickly away; then the fire started.

Abimeal said he asked José about the fire next day. “Shit happens,” he quoted José as responding.

Back at the Greenwich Avenue house, Saracco looked inside the recycling bin and found a bottle of white Karsdale odorless brand of charcoal lighter fluid. He and Torre took note of a $3.99 price tag in the upper left corner. The squad called the state police’s arson team, which dispatched an accelerant-sniffing dog named Cora. José agreed to hand the investigators his clothes; Cora “made several positive alerts” for ignitable liquid, according to the affidavit.

The investigators sealed the evidence, which would go to the state police forensic for more analysis. Meanwhile, Torre and NHFD fire investigator Doug Wardlaw headed to Eddy’s Food Center. Torre brought along a photo of José.

Inside the store, they found a shelf of white Karsdale lighter fluid bottles with the $3.99 price tags in the upper left corner. Just one bottle was missing from the shelf. Bottles of blue windshield fluid were arrayed beside the lighter fluid. A store clerk said he didn’t have time to talk because it was a busy time; he suggested Torre return later.

Then Torre spoke with José himself. He asked him to give a statement about the fire; José said no. José was committed for 72 hours at Yale-New Haven Hospital because of his psychiatric state.

Meanwhile, his wife retrieved a pair of purple latex gloves for the investigators. Saracco and Torre returned to Eddy’s. The clerk had more time to speak now. He confirmed that José had bought windshield washer and lighter fluid at the store.

The team still had more work to do before Torre could prepare an arrest warrant affidavit. It obtained a search warrant from a judge for José‘s right Nike sneaker, then picked it up on Greenwich Avenue and took it to the state lab for testing.

On May 1, a beat cop named Salvadore Rodriguez called Torre to say he’d spoken to another man who had more info on the fire.

That was Alex. Torre enthusiastically went to speak with him. Alex, Abimeal’s brother, had more details to offer. He gave a taped statement about how he’d been in the garage with Abimeal the day before changing a brake line when José came in, “acting funny.” Pointing to the fire damage, José asked them if they “like the new decoration to the house,” Torre’s report quotes Alex as saying. “I should have finished what I started,” José allegedly continued. And: “Thank God they didn’t know who did it.” (José also allegedly vowed to “assassinate” the other tenant whom he had previously assaulted.)

Torre felt he had enough evidence now. He prepared an affidavit stating he had probable cause to charge José with first-degree arson and reckless endangerment. A judge signed it. Police arrested José; he was held on $150,000 bond. The case is still pending; his next scheduled court date is Jan. 3.

Torre went on to dive into other cases, including one on which he’s awaiting approval of a warrant to arrest a man in connection with three separate fires set to property owned by the same woman. As long as people start fires in New Haven, there’s a cop eager to follow their trail.

Read other installments in the Independent’s “Cop of the Week” series:

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* Elisa Tuozzoli
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