A diligent Edgartown Police officer, responding to an automatic alarm early Monday morning from a seasonal harbor-front house, averted a potentially catastrophic explosion when he extinguished a fire deliberately set by a burglar, who also cut the main propane gas line to a room heater.
Edgartown Police are searching for the person, or persons, responsible for arson and burglary of the Ross family residence on 39 Dunham Road. Police Chief Tony Bettencourt said the fire was set, either to cover up the crime or damage the house by causing an explosion.
The state Fire Marshall arrived Monday and collected evidence at the scene. The office is assisting Edgartown with the investigation.
In an advertisement published on page 14 of this week’s issue of The Times, the Ross family listed some of the items stolen and offered a $10,000 reward for information that leads to a conviction.
Edgartown police and fire departments routinely receive hundreds, perhaps thousands, of calls annually to respond to fire, smoke and motion detector alarms. In most cases, they are false alarms, but there is always the possibility of an exception.
Chief Bettencourt said the sheer number of false alarms the department handles could lead a responding officer to let his or her guard down. “But this officer was prepared,” he said.
At 2:35 am Monday, the police and fire department received a call of an automatic fire alarm coming from the Ross residence. Officer Michael Snowden was nearby and arrived first at 2:44 am, according to the police log.
Officer Snowden pulled his patrol car into the driveway. At first, he did not see anything unusual.
“He got out of the car, quarter of three in the morning, and when he looked in the window he saw the flames on top of a pool table,” Chief Bettencourt said. “It had to have just gotten going.”
Mr. Snowden ran to his cruiser and grabbed a fire extinguisher. He broke open a door to gain entrance and extinguished the fire, unaware of the danger of an explosion.
When fire department personnel arrived, they noticed the smell of propane and discovered that the main propane line to a furnace in a garage turned into a recreation room had been cut. A bottle of Jim Beam whiskey was found lying next to a charred towel on the floor in the area of the fire. All the burners on the electric range had been turned to high and were hot and the oven door was open.
Fire department personnel shut the range and turned off gas to the residence. Police called a caretaker to the scene.
Police said the several stolen items include a stereo, CD and DVD players. Several cabinets were opened throughout the home. There was no sign of forced entry.
The family published a list of stolen items in the hopes that someone will come forward with information. The list includes electronics such as a Yamaha surround receiver and Onkyo receiver and home furnishings such as a five-panel bone box, a Nagel slide-top box with a very decorative whaling scene and a scrimshaw paperweight.
“We have to be on our toes,” Chief Bettencourt said about a situation that began much the way many other calls do for an officer in the course of a workday.
He said officer Snowden did what any officer would do faced with a similar situation. “You see flames and the first thing you want to do is put out the fire. He didn’t know if the house was occupied or not,” Mr. Bettencourt said. “Who is to know that somebody cut the propane line to the house?”
The gas line was not a material that could be cut easily. He said investigators needed bolt cutters to take a section of the gas line for evidence.
Edgartown Fire Chief Peter Shemeth said it is easy to become complacent. Under normal circumstances firefighters do not expect to encounter arson, let alone a gas line deliberately left open to cause an explosion.
“Arson is something we don’t see here that often,” he said. “It really makes you stop and think about the potential that was there.”
The firefighters on alarm duty, an assistant chief and truck crew of four, automatically respond to any alarm call. The chief is generally the first to arrive and quickly determines if the truck crew following is needed.
The call Monday morning was for multiple smoke detectors, Chief Shemeth said. That in itself was an indication to firefighters it might not be a false alarm. When officer Snowden reported smoke and flames, a page went out to the entire department.
Chief Shemeth said one of the responding firefighters carried a gas meter that alerted him to the presence of propane in the house. Firefighters discovered that the gas line leading to a room heater in a garage area set up as a game room had been severed.
It was only a matter of time before the exact combination of propane and oxygen would have found an ignition source and ignited. “The potential bomb was there,” Chief Shemeth said. “It was just a matter of time one way or the other.”
Mr. Shemeth said the incident left responding firefighters uneasy. “Everybody after the fact went home and couldn’t get to sleep just thinking about it.”
Mr. Shemeth said a disaster was narrowly averted. “It could have been devastating, not only to the personnel there, but the buildings on either side of the guest house. It could have been horrendous.”
The question now is whether this is an isolated incident or something that will be repeated until the perpetrators are caught. Chief Shemeth said Tuesday he notified down-Island fire chiefs so they would be aware of the potential for similar incidents.
“We can only go for the worst case scenario and if you plan for that you have covered yourself,” he said.
Public’s help sought
In a telephone conversation Tuesday from his home in Florida, Edmund B. Ross said the family appreciates the professionalism and diligence the Edgartown police exhibited, both in the early morning response to the alarm and follow-up investigation. In particular, he singled out officer Snowden. “He really risked his life. He could have gotten killed,” Mr. Ross said.
Mr. Ross said his family was distressed by the serious nature of the crime. He said that whoever broke into the house also sought to burn it down and cause an explosion, something that could have had tragic consequences for the responding police and firefighters.
Mr. Ross said the family is offering a significant reward because of concern for the safety of the entire community.
Chief Bettencourt said the downtown area, specifically the south side of Main Street, has been the scene of numerous burglaries and now arson. “I want to assure the public that the Edgartown Police Department is using every resource possible to solve these crimes,” he said.
Chief Bettencourt said that while there have been cases of arson in the past, this crime is unique. “The cutting of the propane line turns this into something I have never seen nor want to see again,” he said.
Edgartown Police Department asks that citizens report anything suspicious. Anyone with information is asked to call the station at 508-627-4343.
Edgartown has also created an online tip line where the public can remain anonymous and provide information on this case or any crime.
The number to text or call is: 774-310-1190. The email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org