Officials ponder arsonist registry

PARKERSBURG – Ohioians saw a new arsonist registry take effect at the beginning of July, but what does that mean for West Virginia?

The registry in Ohio is maintained and managed by the Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation and means anyone convicted of arson, aggravated arson or an arson-related offense must register their address with their county sheriff’s office.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine announced the new program in a press release in July.

“We hope this new registry will serve as a valuable investigative tool for law enforcement and fire officials,” he said. “Now, investigators will be able to look at an arson scene and quickly determine if any convicted arsonists live nearby.”

Only two other states, California and Louisiana, have such a registry.

West Virginia fire officials agree the registry would be a helpful tool for catching convicted criminals.

Capt. Tim Flinn, with the Parkersburg Fire Department, said it is difficult for area fire investigators to determine who the fire setters are.

Flinn serves on the board of directors for the West Virginia Association of Arson Investigators. The board is made up of state fire marshals, insurance investigators and prosecutors from around the state.

He said often those who start fires are repeat offenders.

“We don’t want people to lose hope about the cause of fires,” Flinn said. “Often times information becomes available after the fire; sometimes months later we are solving the crime.”

Flinn said there are many motives and indicators for criminals involved in arson, the most popular being revenge.

“There is more fraud for profit with vehicle fires than any other nationwide,” he added.

Another motive for juvenile offenders is vandalism, just for kicks, Flinn said. He said sometimes gangs will have “initiations” involving setting something on fire.

“We have seen this locally with juveniles and small gang-related fires,” Flinn said. “This motive is usually repeated on vacant structures, dumpsters and other small trash fires.”

According to statistics, West Virginians are 3.3 times more likely to die in a fire than the general population. The state comes in second behind the District of Columbia residents who are 3.7 times more likely to die in a fire than the rest of the United States.

West Virginia does have some strict penalties for arson-related crimes. Arson is a felony and state law allows prosecutors to ask for a sentence enhancement against convictions involving repeat felons.

However, Flinn said having a registry for arson investigators to look to would be a helpful tool in solving these crimes throughout the state.

The Ohio law states each offender of arson is required to pay a $50 fee for their initial registration and $25 each following year. The funds are spent on maintaining the system. The database is part of the Ohio Law Enforcement Gateway and is only accessible to law enforcement and fire investigators.