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Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Flint’s City Council may reject a new contract the city’s emergency manager wants to impose on Flint’s firefighters.

The contract calls for wage cuts, pension changes, and a cap on retiree health care costs. 

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Thirty students from Michigan fire departments, sheriff’s offices and other public safety agencies have spent the past two weeks learning about fire.

An old farmhouse served as a learning laboratory on Thursday for the fledgling fire investigators. Different rooms of the empty home south of Lansing were set on fire; the students had to figure out exactly how those fires were started.

Lenny Jaskulka is a specialist sergeant with the Michigan State police. He says there’s a lot to learn to become a certified fire scene investigator.

Heidelberg Project

This morning's fire marks the 11th house in the Heidelberg Project to be damaged by suspected arson. The project is an outdoor art installation on Detroit's east side.

The house, called the Birthday Cake House, was a vacant home on Heidelberg Street that Tyree Guyton, Heidelberg's creator, had boarded up and beautified.

Katie Hearn is the marketing and communications director from the Heidelberg Project.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

The city of Flint will not be getting a major federal grant that would have paid to keep many city firefighters on the job.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has turned down Flint’s request for a nearly $8 million SAFER grant. The city has used two previous SAFER grants to pay dozens of firefighters.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

A consultant is being brought in to assess what can be done with the city of Flint’s public safety department.

Budget cuts and smaller workforces have strained Flint’s police and fire departments in recent years.

Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley says efforts to reorganize the city's public safety departments have "really brought into question" their effectiveness.

He says the goal of the new study is to translate the city's financial resources into the public safety services the community needs.

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

FLINT, Mich. (AP) - A newspaper reports that Flint is spending less time and money investigating arsons and making fewer arrests for the crime even though the city leads the nation in arsons per capita.

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

Flint’s Public Safety Director is resigning.

Alvern Lock submitted his resignation today. 

Alvern Lock has overseen Flint’s police and fire departments since 2009, when he was appointed to the job by then-interim mayor Mike Brown.  He submitted his letter of resignation to Mike Brown, just days before Brown himself will step down as Flint’s emergency manager.   Flint’s new emergency manager starts next month.  Brown will stay at city hall through the end of October.

Lock spent 23 years as a Flint police officer before retiring in 2006.

Ionia County Road Commission

KEENE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) - Authorities in rural western Michigan say an arson fire has destroyed a historic covered wooden bridge that has spanned the Flat River since the 19th century.

The Ionia County sheriff's department says the fire started about 5:10 a.m. Sunday on Whites Bridge It was built in 1869 in Keene Township, about 15 miles east of Grand Rapids.

There's no immediate report on suspects.

MLive.com  says the bridge collapsed into the river and was still smoldering at midmorning on Sunday.

Chris Lamphere / Cadillac News

He spent four years in prison after he was convicted in 2009 on an arson charge. But now he is free after a team of lawyers from the University of Michigan's Innocence Clinic proved he was wrongfully convicted.

The Innocence Clinic team said Caminata was convicted on "junk science."

The Clinic has more on Caminata's conviction:

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Gov. Rick Snyder is urging residents to help prevent arson fires in Michigan's communities.

Snyder has proclaimed May 5-11 Arson Awareness Week in Michigan. This year's theme is "Reducing Residential Arson."

The state says that residential arson fires throughout Michigan resulted in more than $10 million in property losses last year. There were 782 residential arson fires in the state in 2012.

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

FLINT, Mich. (AP) - An insurance company says more than a dozen people operated an arson-for-profit ring in Flint that collected more than $2 million over two decades.

The Flint Journal reports State Farm Insurance says in a lawsuit in Detroit federal court that fires purposely were started at homes owned or rented by members of the group. The insurer says insurance claims were filed to receive thousands of dollars in insurance payouts.

No criminal charges have been filed against any of those named the case.

The case has sparked counter lawsuits by some of the defendants. Six of those named in the State Farm lawsuit have settled, including Flint-based public adjustment company Allied and Associates and Gary Lappin, its president. He calls the case "witch hunt."

State Farm isn't discussing the case.

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

The city of Flint has its first full-time fire chief in eight years.

David Cox says he’s ready for the challenge.

“ I want to go in and take a look at what we have and if we have to make any changes…we’ll tweak it,” says Cox, “But they are doing a pretty good job over there I think.”

Cox takes over a fire department that has been dealing with deep budget cuts and an explosion of arson fires in recent years.  

Steve Carmody/MIchigan Radio

FLINT, Mich. (AP) - A newspaper's analysis says that many vacant Flint buildings that caught fire since 2008 ended up burning multiple times.

The Flint Journal reports Monday that of the 1,631 suspicious fires at vacant buildings in the city from 2008 to 2012, more than a quarter involved structures that burned multiple times. In all, 416 structures caught fire multiple times during the period.

The report comes as Flint deals with a high rate of fires that's stretched thin the fire department.

US Supreme Court

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court has ruled that a Michigan defendant cannot be retried for arson even though his initial acquittal was based on a judge's mistake.

The court voted 8-1 Wednesday in favor of Lamar Evans, who was charged with arson after he was seen running away from a burning vacant house in Detroit with a gasoline can in his hand.

A judge acquitted Evans midway through his trial based on a mistaken interpretation of the law.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said for the court that the acquittal is final, even if granted in error. Justice Samuel Alito dissented.

New Michigan Laws Increase Arson Penalties

Jan 3, 2013
Photo courtesy of the Project's facebook page

Four new laws are going into effect in 2013 that will dramatically increase penalties for arson in Michigan.

The laws revise sentencing guidelines to give courts more latitude to hand down longer prison terms.

fire
Marcus Obal / creative commons

Some forensic science often used in police investigations is being called into question.

PBS' Frontline did an excellent series calling out the questionable science behind many arson cases.

In "Death by Fire" they showed how testimony from so-called fire experts led to the convictions of people for arson.

In one case, a potentially innocent man, Cameron Todd Willingham, was put to death in Texas based on questionable fire evidence.

Did Texas execute an innocent man?

Several controversial death penalty cases are currently under examination in Texas and in other states, but it's the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham -- convicted for the arson deaths of his three young children -- that's now at the center of the national debate.

Today, we hear the story of David Lee Gavitt from the Detroit Free Press. Gavitt, from Ionia, was convicted in 1986 of first-degree felony murder for the deaths of his wife and two young daughters in a house fire. He was sentenced to life in prison.

His conviction was overturned and he was released yesterday after spending 26 years in prison.

His first stop, the grave sites of his wife and daughters.

"It was a very emotional scene," said David Moran, a law professor and co-founder of the Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School, which fought for the release of 54-year-old David Lee Gavitt. Moran said 15-20 of Gavitt's family members also arrived to welcome him home.

Since Gavitt's conviction in 1986, fire science has advanced significantly. A fire science expert, John Lentini, reviewed some of the evidence in Gavitt's case for the Innocence Clinic:

He told the clinic that the burn patterns that had caused investigators to suspect arson weren't caused by an accelerant, like gasoline, but by flashover -- a then-misunderstood phenomenon in which a closed room fills with toxic gases and bursts into flames.

"In light of modern fire science, there is simply not one shred of credible evidence that the fire at the Gavitt residence was intentionally set," Lentini said in a 65-page affidavit the clinic presented last September to Judge Hoseth Kreeger.

As Frontline points out, there are several arson cases around the country being reviewed. And the case of Cameron Todd Willingham has caused experts to re-examine old assumptions:

These include assumptions about fire patterns on floors and v-shaped marks on walls, the identifying characteristics of an accelerant, and what happens to glass windows during a blaze. Gerald Hurst, who wrote a report discrediting the evidence used against Willingham in a last-minute death row appeal, declared: “One might well wonder how anyone could make so many critical errors in interpreting the evidence.”

(photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)

DETROIT (AP) — Detroit's fire boss suggests his department could adjust to a looming 15 percent budget cut by letting some abandoned buildings burn to the ground and using firefighters and even Navy Seabees to demolish vacant structures.

Executive Fire Commissioner Donald Austin says he's creating three proposals for Mayor Dave Bing to consider in making deep reductions from the current budget year's $183 million spending plan.

Detroit officials are finalizing plans for the city’s annual Angels' Night campaign.

That’s an effort to put a damper on the arson sprees that once characterized the  “Devils' Night” period around Halloween.

Photo courtesy of the Project's facebook page

Students in Flint have written a new play inspired by the string of arson fires that plagued the city last year.

Students at the University of Michigan-Flint spent a good part of the this year interviewing victims of the arson fires that ripped through the city in 2010. The students then transcribed the interviews and strung them together to create a new play called EMBERS: The Flint Fires Verbatim Theatre Project.

(photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)

Flint city leaders are working with neighborhood watch groups and others to prevent an outbreak of arson fires this weekend. 

Flint firefighters have battled dozens of suspicious fires in abandoned homes for months.

 City leaders are concerned arsonists may step up their activity this Halloween weekend.

 Police officer Tanya Meeks is the liaison officer between the Flint police department and local volunteer groups.