Seasoned private investigator looking into Flora fire says mistakes happen with inexperience

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — A private fire investigator hired to look into the Flora fatal fire tells CBS4 mistakes can easily happen in an arson case if the investigator doesn’t understand the science behind a fire.

This comes as a state fire investigator on the case recently resigned amid questions CBS4 Investigates had been asking about the way this fire investigation was handled.

In November of 2016, four young sisters died in a house fire on E. Columbia St. in Flora. A few weeks later, authorities reported it was set intentionally.

Mike Vergon is a retired ATF investigator and is now working on the private end. He has 20 years of experience solving some of the biggest fires in central Indiana. He was called in to work on the Flora case, hired by the law firm representing the victims’ family.

“It’s hard, because you know just what the family must be going through,” said Vergon.

Vergon would not comment on specifics of the Flora investigation, but he did tell us he lost sleep trying to make sure he got his investigation right.

He agreed to sit down and talk to us after we discovered a mistake was made in the state’s side of the investigation.

Investigators with the State Fire Marshal’s Office had reported that they had found accelerants in several parts of the home. However, another private investigator on the case, this one hired by the landlord’s insurance company, wrote an email to state officials claiming that was not correct. He also claimed State Fire Investigator Dennis Randle got it wrong and didn’t do his job properly.

We asked state police about the accusations in the email and asked them to look into the details of the case. Shortly after, they admitted to us an accelerant was found in only one part of the home. The very next day, Randle resigned.

Vergon would not comment on Randle, but we asked him if mistakes were easy to make when determining whether or not accelerants existed in parts of a structure?

“It could be an easy mistake for someone who doesn’t understand the science of it. And that’s what it comes down to I think,” he said.

Vergon explained that a properly trained fire investigator relies on science. He examines the burn patterns, the ventilation in the house, who was doing what before the fire, and what witnesses saw.

“Every fire scene is different. Every single one is different. But unless you have an understanding of what goes on in a fire environment, um, it’s easy to make mistakes,” he said.

“As investigators, we’re always one bad call or one bad testimony away from having our reputations ruined,” said Vergon. “It’s pretty easy to tell… an inexperienced fire investigator if you’re working with another fire investigator or other fire investigators and when you’re on the scene with them. If they’re throwing things out there that you know they don’t have a good understanding of the science of it.”

Although Vergon is not a part of the criminal side of the Flora case, he does feel like this case is now moving forward.

“I certainly hope that in some point in time the truth will come out about the cause of the fire, especially for the family.”

CBS4 spoke to the victims’ family and they are shocked and very upset about the resignation of Dennis Randle. Neither state police or the State Fire Marshal’s Office will explain why Randle decided to resign.

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