MAN ON FIRE

Feature Story Phoenix Magazine, July 2008

MAN ON FIRE

AFTER 30 YEARS OF SOLVING THE PHOENIX POLICE DEPARTMENT’S GRITTIEST CRIMES, JACK BALLENTINE DECIDED RETIREMENT JUST WASN’T FOR HIM. NOW, AFTER A YEAR OF
TACKLING – AND SOLVING – ARSON CASES FOR THE PHOENIX FIRE DEPARTMENT, IT’S SAFE TO SAY THIS GUY’S A TRUE TRAILBLAZER.

The Phoenix Fire Department didn’t know what to expect a year ago when it gambled on a retired city cop to save its arson unit.

Folks there only knew two crucial things as they hired Jack Ballentine to head the Fire Investigations Division: They knew they desperately needed help – their dismal record of catching arsonists was something they didn’t want the public to know. And they knew it was a crapshoot to resolve the longstanding angst between the city’s fire and police departments by hiring a former cop.

So they held their breath and hoped for the best. And after a year, they received results they never expected:

In his first six months on the job, Ballentine’s expert training in investigative techniques took the unit from having one of the worst records in the country of solving arson to one far above the national average.

In his first nine months, he helped investigators solve the most important case on the fire department’s books: the 2001 Southwest Market fire that killed beloved Phoenix firefighter Bret Tarver.

And most surprising of all, in the past year, Ballentine has made major strides in mending the rift between the Phoenix police and fire departments, starting a new era of joint support and cooperation.

“We’re thrilled,” says Fire Chief Bob Khan, who made beefing up the arson unit a major priority of his new administration.

“We’ve improved tremendously,” says Deputy Chief Mike Berggren, who begged for years to bring the arson unit up to snuff and is retiring this year knowing he finally made it happen.

As for Ballentine, he simply wants the focus and glory to rest on the 15 men and women in the unit who he says always have had the heart and soul to solve arson crimes.

“I’m adding to the tool belt to get the job done,” he says. “Their tool belt was kind of empty before.”

Jack Ballentine is a tall, strong guy who resembles an overgrown boy. His kind face only gets kinder when he smiles, and he’s been smiling – beaming, actually – a lot lately.

He was ending an illustrious 30-year career with the Phoenix Police Department last summer when fire officials approached him about a new position at the fire department. After all he had gone through as a cop, nobody would have blamed him if he decided to dismiss the offer and simply enjoy his hard-earned retirement instead.

For years, he was an undercover cop taking on some of the department’s grittiest jobs. At one point, he posed as a biker outlaw, and his clothes were so rank nobody wanted to be near him. (His biker friends didn’t seem to notice.) Then he posed as a murder-for-hire goon who cracked more than two dozen cases, including one involving a woman in Canada who mistook an acting troupe in the Phoenix Yellow Pages for hired murderers, and one involving a couple who wanted their son killed because his bad behavior was jeopardizing their spot in a trailer park. (These exploits are being highlighted in a book Ballentine wrote for St. Martin’s Press, due out this fall.)

Finally, he ended his career as a homicide detective, going out in 2007 with the kind of bang a detective only dreams of: He had a 100 percent clearance rate in his last year, solving every one of the 15 murder cases and five “cold cases” assigned to him. The average annual clearance rate for Phoenix detectives is 32 percent; Ballentine’s rate was usually higher than that, but this 100 percent was more than anyone would ever have hoped for. Even Ballentine calls it “freakish.”

When he looks back on his career, Ballentine lists his No. 1 case as solving the murder of Phoenix police officer David Uribe, who was shot while making a routine traffic stop on May 10, 2005. Ballentine’s investigation fingered two methamphetamine abusers who were “out to kill a cop,” he says. The alleged shooter is still facing trial while his accomplice has been convicted of second-degree murder and is in prison.

Ballentine’s last perfect year as a cop also happened to be the year Phoenix New Times reporter Paul Rubin was shadowing him for an in-depth profile.

In fact, it was Rubin who first brought Ballentine’s name up for the new arson job. For years, Rubin and Phoenix Fire Chief Bob Khan have walked together for exercise – the central fire administration complex and the New Times building are a block apart – and it was on one of those walks that Khan mentioned he wanted the fire department to get serious about solving arson. Rubin, who was in the midst of his detailed profile of Ballentine, suggested he’d be a good candidate for the job.

“I spent 30 years in the business and I love being a cop,” Ballentine says. “When this came up, I thought, I’d get the best of both worlds – I’m still in investigations, but now I’m learning the fire side.”

Many others saw the same potential in the job, and the department had more than 70 applicants from across the country, including fire chiefs, attorneys, cops and others. But when they whittled down their list of applicants, it was the hometown boy who came out on top.

In July 2007, Ballentine moved into his office in fire headquarters and instantly went to work.

The first thing he did was enroll his investigators in the 18-week detective course at Rio Salado College he created a decade ago. The “Criminal Investigations” course, which he also teaches, is so detailed and time-consuming that it’s closed to everyone but law enforcement and demands five-and-a-half hours of classroom time each week. Lessons cover report writing, interviewing, search warrants, evidence collection, investigative follow-up and crime scene investigation.

“Without these tools, how do you do a successful investigation?” Ballentine asks, noting that, until now, arson investigators were basically operating with nothing but common sense and dumb luck to guide them.

Until Ballentine came along, they really only had one tool to help them prove a fire had been purposely set. State Farm Insurance has long provided a specially trained dog to the department who can sniff out certain substances like gasoline. The current dog is a chocolate Lab named Sadie. “If gas is used to set a fire, Sadie’s going to find it,” Ballentine brags.

But determining a fire was caused by arson and finding the arsonist are two different things, and it was this second part the department needed major help with. Ballentine decided to get everyone in the arson unit involved in the investigation process.

Case in point: Fire Department administrative assistant Karen Warrington had taught herself to access police records (rap sheets, license plates, addresses) to track down clues. As one investigator notes, “If we needed to run something, we’d take it to Karen and she’d find it.” Ballentine saw Warrington as “such a natural” that he enrolled her in several training programs to get her certified as an arson analyst.

Ballentine notes that even without the tools they needed, the unit had a strong core: “They’re experts as firefighters and are driven. They challenge themselves by going into arson investigations. They just didn’t know where to go – now they know where to go.”

Of the 1,000 structure fires in Phoenix in any given year, about 300 are suspected of arson – with an amazing 60 percent of them thought to be set by juveniles, Ballentine says.

“If we suspect arson, the criminal investigation begins, and now they’re just like homicide or burglary investigators,” Ballentine says.

But on top of that, there are special challenges in a fire investigation, he adds. “Arson cases are probably the hardest to [solve],” he notes. “It’s not like going into a homicide scene. Usually, when a crime is committed, everyone splits and you’ve got a crime scene you can study for clues. But in arson cases, basically your evidence is burned up and the scene was destroyed by firefighters fighting the fire.”

He knew all of that when he walked through the door last summer. He also knew Phoenix fire investigators had a record of clearing only 8 percent of their cases – one of the lowest rates in the nation. But by January of this year, his new training and tactics had brought that clearance rate to 29 percent – way above the national average of 18 percent.

“We’re gathering a lot of attention,” he says with one of those beaming smiles. “In my mind, when I came here, I had no doubt that with support and training, they’d meet the national average. That was my goal. But we’ve surpassed that already, and I can see them at a 30 percent clearance, and that’s huge.”

Just days before Jack Ballentine started his new job, three teens were arrested for setting fires at Cholla Middle School in Phoenix, causing thousands of dollars in damage. An alert security guard caught the boys and detained them until police arrived and arrested them.

But when police sent the case to the county attorney’s office later that summer, it was rejected for lack of sufficient evidence to prosecute the three. (“The county attorney’s office doesn’t [pursue] a case they don’t think they can win,” Ballentine says.)

By then, arson investigators had already had weeks of classroom training in Ballentine’s investigative course and were aggressively putting to work the information they were learning.

Captain Willie Nelson – an 18-year veteran of firefighting who joined the arson unit a year earlier – decided to re-open the case against the three teens and spent three weeks digging into the case details. As Ballentine later noted in a letter of commendation that went into Nelson’s file, as well as to Chief Khan’s desk, “He immediately began to reinvestigate the case and began a series of taped interviews with all those involved. During these interviews he was able to skillfully obtain statements by each of the subjects… [including] admission of guilt.”

Captain Nelson then prepared a detailed investigative report that he submitted to County Attorney Andrew Thomas on September 11, 2007. The report – just as he learned in class – documented all his actions and interviews, evidence recovered and photographs of the crime. “The county attorney was ecstatic over the effort displayed by Captain Nelson and began the process of recharging all three suspects,” Ballentine noted in his commendation letter. “I am incredibly proud of Captain Nelson’s work ethic and effort to seek an important conclusion to this investigation.”

That isn’t the only commendation Ballentine has given in his first year. On September 20, 2007, three young men stole a car from the owner’s driveway, and when it stalled, they started a fire in the back seat. Phoenix fire Captain Gary Hernandez answered the suspected arson call and started an investigation. The victim positively identified three young men as the perpetrators; two were quickly arrested. “Through Gary’s meticulous investigative techniques he determined that she misidentified one of the suspects, and this then put in question the other two arrests,” Ballentine wrote in a commendation letter. “It would have been easy for Gary to pack his bag and leave without any further follow-up, but he didn’t. Instead, he began to carefully interview the two other suspects and eventually got an admission of guilt.”

In the end, Captain Hernandez’s investigation nailed one of the arsonists and kept an innocent teen from being charged with a crime, Ballentine noted in commending him.

None of these recent successes has gone unnoticed by the fire department. On April 18, the entire Fire Investigations Division received the department’s Medal of Merit for its outstanding achievements in the past year. The award notes: “The unit is currently operating at a more efficient rate than any time in the history of the Phoenix Fire Department.”

And you can see why if you ever catch the arson investigators at work at the Phoenix Police Academy in south Phoenix.

“Honor. Pride. Integrity.” Those three words are inscribed on the front gate of the academy, which is nestled within South Mountain Park. They’re also etched into the administration building of this modern, well-equipped training center – the first stop for anyone interested in law enforcement work in Phoenix, including arson investigation.

If you can’t make it through the academy (expect to lose a few pounds and gain some muscle as you endure rigorous training), you can’t be a cop. The academy also offers special training to firefighters to become certified peace officers, and now Ballentine has added an entirely new routine.

It’s a Tuesday morning in February and a half-dozen fire investigators are sitting around computers learning how to track down suspects. Beefy police instructors, who obviously had no trouble maneuvering the trials of this academy themselves, are showing students how to access ARs (arrest records) and DRs (department reports) and how to trace license plates, often the only clue investigators have to track down someone from the scene of a suspected arson fire.

“You need to [gather this information] so you know who you’re dealing with,” says arson investigator Marika McCue. (Every person here knows that the most dangerous moment is when you confront a suspect, and that often means walking up to a house where you think the suspect is hiding, and there’s a big difference between a kid who might just be playing with fire and a known arsonist with a long rap sheet.)

After the computer classes, the group walks up a hill to the Tactical Village built eight years ago to give officers a hands-on experience of dealing with suspects. The village is a replica of about every type of structure they’re bound to encounter: a two-story apartment complex, a single-family home, a convenience store, an alley.

“We built this for real life situations,” says detective Dave Norman. “You can mess up an investigation, and it sucks, but it’s going to happen. What you can’t mess up is your tactics and your safety priorities. The most important thing is knowing when you’ve gotten in over your head.”

While it’s basic police training to learn how to approach a suspected criminal, this is all new to firefighters, even those who investigate arsons. These are men and women trained first and foremost to run into a burning building; they’re used to being the “good guys” who come to save you (as opposed to the “bad guy” cops who come to arrest you), and confronting suspects hasn’t been a typical part of their job description – until now.

One of their first lessons is how to “read” a suspect. “Are they breathing heavy, standing there with a clenched fist, taking a combative stance, not looking at you while they’re talking to you – all that says ‘beware,’” Detective Norman notes. “You’ve got to take a police mindset rather than a fire mindset.”

Phoenix Police Sergeant Mike Perry drills this into the arson investigators: “Always trust your instincts. We’ve all been there when we look back and think, ‘That was friggin’ stupid’. You can get him another day. Never endanger yourself or your fellow officers.”

The investigators are suited up for protection – thick chest and groin pads, helmets, steel-toed shoes. They’re all equipped with simulated Glock handguns loaded with soap bullets that won’t kill you through your padded vest but will still hurt like hell. Today they’re going after a guy in the single-family house, and as three investigators take up positions, they knock on the door. “The most dangerous moment is when you knock and they open the door,” they’re told.

In the midst of this simulated lesson, beepers start going off for real, signaling a fire somewhere in Phoenix. The investigator who’s on tap to respond is here training, so Ballentine gets on the phone to send someone else. But the minute they’re done with the training, some of the investigators race to the fire scene. Someone has tried to blow up a home but has destroyed it with a fire instead.

The investigators discover they are about to use in real life the very computer techniques and home arrest tactics they learned that afternoon at the academy. By 10 p.m. that night, they have traced the car spotted at the scene, gone to the owner’s home, confronted him, discovered incriminating evidence and arrested him for suspected arson.

Ballentine is on the phone the next day, sounding like a proud papa. “Hollywood wouldn’t dare try to pass this off, but it really happened,” he gushes. “They immediately used what they’d learned, and that’s about as good as it gets.”

Not quite. It was just days from getting a whole lot better – days from the moment this entire department had yearned for more than seven long years. Ever since the day Bret Tarver died.

The Phoenix Fire Department, which was led for decades by former Chief Alan Brunacini, is a pretty safe place to work, considering how lethal the work can be. In the past 34 years, they’ve lost four men to vicious flames. When they lost Bret Tarver on March 14, 2001, there hadn’t been a fire death in the department in 16 years.

While every death of a first-responder brings a special kind of grief – these are men and women putting their lives on the line to serve the public – Tarver’s death hit particularly hard, and how he died affected everyone so deeply that it forever changed the way this fire department approaches fires.

Forty-year-old Tarver was trapped by debris during a swift-moving blaze at the old Southwest Market at 35th Avenue and McDowell Road. As rescuers tried to reach him, he ran out of oxygen. He was a big, strapping, handsome man with a beautiful wife and three little girls and was one of the department’s favorites. Anyone living in Phoenix at the time remembers the memorials made of flowers and teddy bears and best wishes that carpeted the driveway of his fire station. The entire city mourned this horrible loss.

It was a moment that seared Brunacini’s soul, and in response, he revamped the firefighters’ training and brought in new technology. All the while, everyone in the department knew the awful truth: This wasn’t an accidental fire. This was arson.

The department put up fliers around the market’s neighborhood after the fire, hoping someone would come forward with information, but no one ever did.

And then, last August, as Ballentine reviewed the “cold cases” of arson, he suggested they get aggressive about finding whoever set the fire that killed Tarver. Go to the media – English and Spanish – and say we’re looking for information on this fire, he suggested to Captain Willie Nelson, who took on the case. Put up some more posters and let’s see what happens, he said.

What happened was this: The posters kept disappearing. “We knew we were in the right neighborhood,” Nelson says.

And then came the anonymous tip. A person who didn’t identify himself and left no contact number called to name the person who set the fire and gave a motive.

Then a second anonymous tip came in with the same name. That tip also identified a third person, along with his phone number, who was said to know something. Nelson called the number, which was the suspect’s workplace. “He asked if he could call me back, and on his break, he called. I think it bothered him [to have this knowledge and not come forward].”

The guy told Nelson that the day of the fire, 17-year-old Christopher Benitez had called him and made jokes about the fire. “The guy told him, ‘Don’t be saying that stuff – somebody died there and it’s nothing to joke about; it will come back to haunt you,’” Nelson remembers.

He now had three tips that all pointed to the same person. He researched Benitez’s background and found he’d been arrested in the past for possession of marijuana and assault and was still living at home in Phoenix, in the very neighborhood where the fliers had been disappearing. In February, Benitez joined the Army and was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas.

Nelson and Ballentine flew to Fort Hood to confront Benitez, who was now 24 years old. They interviewed him in March, just shy of the anniversary of Tarver’s death.

“I just had all this new training on how to read people, and I saw all the things we’d learned in class,” Nelson says. “He had a hard time talking about the fire. He kept trying diversion tactics like stalling or repeating the question, and his story changed. It was interesting to see the things we learned in class coming back at you.”

Initially, Benitez said he and his cousin, Michael Torrez, watched the fire from the sun deck of Benitez’s nearby house. Later, he changed his story and said they were at his cousin’s house, watching from afar and that when they first saw the fire it was already a huge blaze.

As Nelson carefully took him through the story again and again, he found Benitez could remember the shirt he was wearing that day – the kind of information you’d only remember if that day was extra special in your life. Benitez kept changing the story and eventually put himself at the fire. He didn’t admit setting it but said he was there when it started, as though he and his cousin were bystanders.

At the time, the cousin was incarcerated at Arizona State Prison in Florence on a weapons violation, and upon returning from Fort Hood, Nelson went down to the prison to interview him. “The cousin started in on the initial story,” he remembers. “It was like they’d concocted the story at the time but hadn’t rehearsed it for seven years.”

Nelson told Torrez that Benitez already had admitted they were at the site of the fire, and Nelson remembers the inmate looked a little sick and said, “He threw me under the bus.” Now, believing his cousin was trying to make him the patsy, Torrez said they went to the market and saw the fire was merely smoldering – unlike the “blaze” Benitez remembered. Torrez also knew something else important about that fire – he knew Bret Tarver’s name.

“Most people would remember the incident and that somebody died but not the specific name,” Nelson says.

The story the tipsters gave is one the evidence appears to support, and this is what Nelson believes really happened:

Benitez was a 17-year-old “punk” who was “not in a good place” in 2001 and went to an even darker place when he was caught shoplifting two 12-packs of beer from Southwest Market. The manager caught him and pulled him back into the store (although at Fort Hood, Benitez tried to say the manager was “very, very nice; polite and kind,” which Nelson knew was the opposite of what had really happened). Benitez didn’t like the way the manager treated him, so he came back the next day to set a fire in the trash behind the store to cause him grief. The fire took off, ending in tragedy.

Nelson was completing his investigation at press time and was submitting a full report to the county attorney’s office, where they hope the information is solid enough to charge the suspects with arson and murder.

“In my opinion, this case wouldn’t have been cracked without Jack,” Nelson says. “We’ve never traveled outside the state before to gather evidence, but Jack did it all the time [as a cop]. He had the experience, and where he’s been has been crucial. Without Jack, we wouldn’t have done this.”

And without Jack, there wouldn’t be the new cooperation between the fire and police departments, Nelson adds.

“In the past, police and fire have been separate, but he knows everybody and knows who to go to for help,” Nelson says. “He’s someone who has done it, knows how to do it and has the connections. That makes all the difference in the world.”

Deputy Chief Berggren is pleased that, as he retires, he’s seeing an end to the acrimony between police and firefighters in Phoenix. “I see that not only fading but going in the opposite direction,” he says. “It’s not ‘us’ and ‘them’ anymore. A lot more, it’s ‘us.’”

Jack Ballentine is sitting behind his neat desk, listening to his boss brag about how much he’s done for the fire department in the short year he’s held the job. He’s paying particular attention to the new sense of cooperation coming out of the city’s first-responders. And he’s got that wide smile on his face, like he knows what a great job he’s done but is pleased as punch to hear others spread the news.

Actually, the guy is beaming.

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