A challenging crime to investigate

By Jeff Guy
Newton Kansan – May 11, 2015

Firefighters work to control a blaze May 18, 2008, at the Slate Creek Apartments, 517 Cherry Lane.

Firefighters work to control a blaze May 18, 2008, at the Slate Creek Apartments, 517 Cherry Lane.

For local investigators, National Arson Awareness Week, observed this past week, calls to mind a cold case in which nobody has yet had to answer for a young man’s death.

The unsolved arson homicide is the first thing Newton Fire Marshal Randall McBee talks about when the subject of arson is brought up.

At around 10 p.m. May 18, 2008, dispatch took a 911 call reporting a fire at Slate Creek Apts., an eight-plex on Cherry Lane. The fire started in apt. 517-D where Sean Ormsbee and his girlfriend, Sharon Fisher, 34, lived.

The fire spread and the stairway was engulfed in flames, blocking any exit. Fisher escaped by jumping out of the second story balcony. Ormsbee died of smoke inhalation. Nobody else died in the fire.

An investigation determined the fire was intentionally set, and McBee is adamant it was arson.

McBee has exhausted all leads in the case. He has driven across the country repeatedly and interviewed around 200 people, many of them more than once. After seven years, the answer remains elusive.

“There’s no statute of limitations on murder,” McBee said.

Newton Police Lt. Scott Powell said, “We don’t know if it (the fire) was meant to hurt someone. We don’t know if it was meant to get this big. We do know somebody set the fire and somebody got killed from it.

Along with the fire that took Ormsbee’s life, there are a few other unsolved arson cases in the county — none of the others ending with a death.

There were two such fires in 2009. On the night of Feb. 21, the Hilltop Convenience store in Walton was destroyed by fire. Investigators believe the store was burglarized, then set on fire, but the persons responsible have never been found. There was a house fire at 1618 North Harvey Hill Road. The home was a $276,000 loss. All the occupants got out safely, but the case remains unsolved.

Investigating arson

McBee works for the Newton Police Dept. and works closely with Newton Fire/EMS. He also assists the Harvey County Sheriff’s Dept. when needed. Powell and detectives Craig Douglass and James Pfannenstiel have also been trained in arson investigation.

Investigations into the possibility of arson are common, but arson is not a common crime, McBee and Powell said. On average, there are one of two cases a year in the county.

“It’s better to err on the side of caution,” Powell said.

Investigating arson crimes is challenging because it is difficult to find physical evidence, Powell said.

Investigators have to rule out every possibility that the fire was accidental before determining it to be arson, Powell said. If a fire is determined to be an accident, then later ruled an arson, the case loses credibility. If an arson determination is later changed to accidental, insurance may not not cover the damage and a person will have suffered defamation.

When something looks suspicious to firefighters on the scene, they call McBee. He investigates physical evidence and forwards information to the police detectives to use when questioning potential suspects.

McBee said the most common motive behind arson is spite and revenge.

He recalled a fire on Hillcrest. Several gas cans were found and fires originated from different locations in the house. The man who lived there shot himself in the basement. He was going through a divorce and apparently wanted to make sure his wife did not get anything. Cash was also found burned.

Insurance fraud is the second most common motive, McBee said.

No matter how small or contained a fire may be, any fire intentionally set to a structure or vehicle is a felony. If a small fire is set on a person’s porch it is a felony, Powell said. Violators face the possibility of prison.

McBee wants people to be aware of one thing during Arson Awareness Week.

“If you set an arson fire, we’re coming after you,” he said.

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