CRIME WATCH: AFD arson investigators solve cases well above national average

Arson investigators with the Austin Fire Department have an arrest rate four times higher than the national average. Out of the 120-plus intentionally set fires they've responded to this year, a handful remain open.

In this week’s Crime Watch, FOX 7's Noelle Newton, shows what fuels the team's success.

Austin Fire Department Arson Investigator, Captain Andy Reardon walks us through his latest case.

"Here's some machinery that was set on fire. You can kind of see the sooting and things like that there,” he said.

Prior to our interview, his team went to the home of 25-year-old Phillip Hernandez and arrested him for arson.

Reardon says Hernandez and 28-year-old Leonardo Vargas broke into Austin Counter Tops on November 29th, stole tools and set five different fires inside the warehouse using various chemicals.

Reardon points out a possible accelerant, "Acetone which is very, very flammable. [Acetone is ] one of the most flammable substances out there."

The men were former employees.

"They could've gotten trapped inside there, died inside there. They ruined a guy's business that he admits was already not doing as well as he'd hoped,” he said.

It's another positive outcome for the dozen investigators who work both intentionally set and accidental fires for the city. Their arrest rate is four times the national average.

Reardon says arson is typically tied to illegal activity, used as a way to cover up another crime.

"A lot of people are confident they can get away with it,” Reardon said.

But with this group, good luck.

"All of our investigators, all 12 of us, have been firefighters for 12-15 years before we were ever arson investigators, so we understand how a fire works,” said Reardon. “You can't just drop a cigarette on a carpet and it burn a house down. We get stories like that all the time. The science of fire proves it doesn't work that way. You can't just throw a match in a pool of gasoline and expect it to blow up. The science of fire shows that it doesn't work that way."

In addition to their experience as firefighters, the arson investigators are licensed peace officers.

"We carry a badge and a gun. If we're out doing arrests, we're wearing our vests, things like that,” Reardon said.

There are several unsolved cases.

Reardon showed us photos of the aftermath of a house fire at 9808 Middle Fiskville Road. It happened on August first.

"There were multiple fires set inside here. There's evidence of a break in. There's evidence of some items stolen including a couple guns that haven't been recovered,” he said.

A car fire is also giving investigators trouble.

Reardon showed us a photo of a stripped Honda Accord that was found by park police officer at 400 Grove on October first.

The owner reported it stolen days prior. It is so badly damaged investigators are unable to determine how the fire started.

For the most part, calls result in arrests like Austin Counter Tops.

"It's a huge sense of satisfaction where we can say, you know what, we've done our part to get in the middle of this and at least say hey, somebody cares about your business. It's awfully nice to help people from a different perspective, a different side of it,” said Reardon.

If you have any information about the unsolved arson cases we highlighted, or regarding any other fire-- call the arson tip line at 1-877-4FIRE45. You could earn a cash reward.

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