Authorities looking for break in arson case - Cleveland 19 News Cleveland, OH

Authorities looking for break in arson case

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Fire officials acknowledge it may take a while to get the big break needed in the investigation of an arson that killed five college students last month.

"It's a tad early," fire Capt. Steve Saltsman said.

Fire officials say they know how the fire was set at the rooming house near Ohio State University, and they are continuing to knock on doors for tips. The reward fund for information has grown to $34,500.

"Someone out there knows what happened," Saltsman said.

Up to 20 people were in the house after a 21st birthday party April 13 when the fire was set near the front door. Two Ohio State students and three from Ohio University died in the blaze.

If the investigation of a similar fire three years ago is any indication, the wait to find the arsonist could go on for years.

Arson investigators still are trying to find out who ignited a dormitory at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., in Jan. 19, 2000, killing three freshmen at the university.

Not all arson investigations drag on. The quick ones usually rely on confessions or eyewitnesses. Authorities last year arrested a woman two days after she set a fire that killed four people near the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Two friends turned her in.

Arsons can be among the hardest cases to prove without an eyewitness because much evidence is lost when crime scenes burn.

A 1998 arson that killed one person at Murray State University in Murray, Ky., is an example. Charges were filed, then dropped, against seven people in what the prosecutor said was a rush to get a conviction. Someone else later was arrested and tried, but the jury couldn't reach a verdict.

"I believe in the justice system," said Candy Karol, whose son Aaron died at Seton Hall. "Someone will rat the others out ... I don't care how long it takes, as long as they get the kids."

New Jersey authorities spent more than a year making tests, going so far as to recreate the fire scene, then burn it to find out what happened. Only after that could they say for sure it was arson.

A grand jury acting as an investigative body has listened to testimony from more than 200 people. But according to victims' family members, no one has confessed or come forward as an eyewitness.

The North Carolina case was based purely on confessions, said Greensboro Fire Battalion Chief David Douglas. Janet Danahey, who is charged with setting the fire, said she lit a box outside her former boyfriend's apartment as a prank, then told two friends about it.

When the friends realized the fire had killed four people, they went to defense attorneys and then to police. Danahey was in custody the next night.

Douglas said he thinks police eventually would have found their way to Danahey, but it never would have been so soon.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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