Fire Marshal Discovers Arson--And Humanity

by : Jon Butt

The job of a fire marshal in the United States is often like the job of a private investigator: thankless and fascinating. But a private investigator's role is usually punitive: figure out who's scamming the insurance company, say, or where the ex-convict who broke parole ran to. A good fire marshal, on the other hand, never forgets one critical rule: fire safety comes first, no matter what.

Paul Maldonado, fire marshal for the State of Texas, was called in to investigate the recent fire at the Austin mansion of Governor Rick Perry. In retrospect, it must have seemed inevitable that the building would be targeted for arson. Perry, former lieutenant Governor under President Bush, inherited much of the ill will that the student population in Austin held for the Texas Republicans, and his reign as Governor was marked by occasional scandal and a rising discontent among the electorate. The 2007 announcement that the Governor's mansion would be remodeled to the tune of $10 million--including a state-of-the-art fire suppression system--must have been, in retrospect, the last straw. On the night of June 8, 2008, that straw burst into flames.

Maldonado and his video surveillance team knew who the suspect was--roughly, of course. He fit the established profile: young, twenty-something, athletic. Angry, even. In a press conference, Maldonado proposed that this anger was the cause of the arson. He might be angry "at the death penalty-- and other political issues," Maldonado said. "His feelings of anger and frustration will be noted by people who know him."

A government official, a mysterious fire, a political radical, a confrontation. In most situations, this would be a clear opportunity for power and authority to assume their roles, for the government official to make clear, punitive statements. But that's not what Maldonado--a fire marshal, after all, did.

"To the person or persons responsible for this crime I would like to relay a message," said Maldonado in the same conference. "We are concerned with your safety."

He went on to explain: the video footage showed a man with some experience throwing incendiary devices. Fire is a terrible thing to experiment with, warned Maldonado. The arsonist chose a dangerous means of sending a message to the governor--dangerous not only to the mansion, but to the arsonist. And more: Maldonado said that he appreciated, above all, the willingness of the arsonist to wait until the Governor was away, until the mansion was deserted, to set his fire.

"We will not forget that," the fire marshal said.

The investigation goes on, of course. But what it reveals about the investigator is almost more fascinating than the eventual identity of the culprit. It's rare to find a public official who truly concerns himself with what's really important in criminal matters: the threat to public safety, and the value of human life. It takes a fire marshal, in the end, to say that he appreciates his quarry for valuing human life.