The Probe Begins

While Joe LaPore was making his comments to reporters on the quad outside Boland Hall, the rudimentary elements of an arson task force had already begun to take shape in the back room of the South Orange Police headquarters.

It was a formidable array of talent. Before the fire had burned out, the ATF had already dispatched agents from its North Jersey office, among them some of the same agents who, after cutting their teeth on the decade long hunt for Unibomber Ted Kaczynski, had   found the evidence that helped crack the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993.  There were also investigators from the state police, and from the local police.

chapter continues

Donald C. Campolo
Donald C. Campolo
All of them were under the direction of the Essex County prosecutor's office. Truth be told, the veteran cops, particularly the feds, had little faith in the county prosecutor's office. It had a reputation as a scandal-plagued unit, and it had only recently been placed under the direction of Donald C. Campolo.

At the very moment the members of the task force first sat down at the table in the cheaply paneled makeshift conference room a less-than private room that also housed the only coffee pot in the station -- those political winds were already being churned up outside the South Orange Police Department by the whirling blades of then-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman's official state police helicopter.

"From the beginning, we knew that politics was going to play a big part in this case," said a law-enforcement official who worked on the case from the start. But there was also a sense among those at that table that morning that something bigger than politics was at play, something that in the minds of the cops trumped any political pressure to rush to judgment.

It was this: "Most of us are parents," said one grizzled old veteran cop.

It would be tricky, but the cops figured, they could find a way to keep the politicians at bay, at least in the short run.   After all, there is no more painstakingly complex investigation than a fire probe. Unlike other cases, there is usually little evidence left behind. Footprints, fingerprints, a stray hair, a cigarette butt, the kind of things that provide the crucial clue in a host of other cases, are all incinerated in a 1,500-plus degree blaze. Sometimes, if you're lucky, you might stumble across a trace of some accelerant gasoline, lighter fluid -- but that usually only happens in arson-for-profit cases or in those even rarer cases in which a jealous boyfriend douses the downstairs hallway of his girlfriend's tenement with the gas from the lawnmower and torches it.  Whatever else this was, it was clearly not an arson for profit, and by the middle of the morning on January 19, investigators already knew that no accelerant had been used. Burn patterns on the floor of the lounge proved that.

"We started throwing out theories and shooting them down," said one investigator, who declined to be identified. The truth was, said another law enforcement official, "nobody, particularly not the local guys, wanted to believe that anybody could have done something like this on purpose."

1. The Fire

2. The Heart of the Fire

3. A Swirling Sea of Smoke

4. The Morning After

5. Where Were You When the Fire Started?

6. The Probe Begins

7. The Cops are Rattled

8. The Meeting

9. Under Questioning

10. The Fat Lady Sings

11. The Godfather, Part I

12. Hardball

13. The Godfather, Part II

14. Closure

15. Photo Gallery

16. Bibliography

17. The Author

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Columbine Massacre

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