Phoenix Fire Investigators and Insurance Company Implicated in Wrongful Prosecutions
Following a decision by Arizona prosecutors not to criminally charge a pair of Phoenix Fire Department (PFD) investigators who allegedly lied under oath and trained a dog to implicate innocent people, victims have pursued justice through civil litigation. During the course of one of those lawsuits, a wrongfully-accused woman found strong evidence suggesting that her own insurance company sought to aid in her conviction.
According to Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, the May 2009 investigation of a fire in an east Phoenix neighborhood, led by PFD Captains Sam Richardson and Fred Andes, involved “an utter breakdown in basic investigative techniques and procedures.”
However, while Richardson and Andes made “incorrect or impeachable statements” in the case, Montgomery declined to prosecute them in October 2014, saying the pair had skirted prosecution because Arizona law requires that they knowingly made false statements.
“Not bringing criminal charges obviously did not result in us saying that there was nothing wrong with what happened here, or with what the investigation identified,” Montgomery said.
Carl Caples was charged with arson in the east Phoenix fire after an arson dog named Sadie signaled to investigators that she smelled accelerants at the scene. Although Caples insisted during interrogation that he did not set the fire and offered to take a lie detector test, he spent 16 months in jail awaiting trial because he could not afford to post bail.
“It ruined my life,” Caples said of his arrest and incarceration.
Barbara Sloan spent a night in jail after Sadie also implicated her in a house fire about 15 miles away from Caples’ home. Richardson and Andes investigated that fire, too.
“Every day that I woke up, I didn’t know if I’d be a free woman or behind bars for the rest of my life,” Sloan said.
Even though lab tests later showed no evidence of accelerants in either of the fires, Andes said in court that Sadie’s nose was more reliable.
“I believe the dog is far superior to the lab equipment,” he testified.
But as Sloan sat at home preparing for her trial, she discovered a possible reason for the PFD investigators’ confidence in Sadie. As Sloan listened to the fire evidence tape, recorded by Richardson, she heard Andes tell Sadie: “You gotta put your nose down. At least fake it for me, okay?”
“It was disgusting!” Sloan said of her reaction to the recording.
Both Sloan and Caples then hired a private fire investigator, Pat Andler, to help exonerate them. In Sloan’s case, Andler determined that the fire started in the fuse box of a car parked in her garage. Caples’ home caught on fire, Andler said, because of a short in the electrical system in the house’s attic.
The arson charges against Sloan and Caples were dismissed “in the interest of justice,” the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office (MCAO) stated.
In the summer of 2014, Richardson and Andes, along with their supervisor, Jack Ballentine, were placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) investigation. Concluding its investigation, DPS recommended charging them with felony false swearing.
While MCAO may have refused to prosecute Richardson and Andes, in January 2016 the International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI), in response to a complaint submitted by Sloan, censured the PFD investigators – essentially agreeing with the DPS’ findings. The IAAI concluded that Richardson and Andes had acted criminally in falsifying or misrepresenting evidence in Sloan’s prosecution, and pursuant to those findings the association revoked their certification and membership.
Though Andes and Richardson avoided prosecution, they were added to the Rule 15 Disclosure Database – formerly known as the Officer Integrity Database – and were reassigned to divisions outside arson investigations, according to a PFD spokeswoman.
MCAO is also reviewing about 30 past and pending cases “in which either [Andes or Richardson] may have been investigating,” Montgomery said. Further, the fire department contracted with a private law firm to complete an administrative investigation at a cost of up to $50,000.
In November 2014, Caples filed a civil rights suit in Maricopa County Superior Court against the City of Phoenix, Richardson, Andes, Ballentine, former PFD Chief Robert Khan and PFD Captain William Nelson. The suit alleged the PFD had violated his constitutional and civil rights through the mishandling of their investigation; it also asserted that the PFD investigators had bias towards conclusions of arson during fire investigations.
After the criminal charges against her were dismissed, Sloan sued her insurer, Farmers Insurance, claiming that the company had deliberately withheld exculpatory evidence that would have assisted in her criminal defense, in order to serve their own interest in not paying her insurance claim.
Sloan lost her suit in 2012, with a jury awarding Farmers a $1.68 million judgment in legal fees against her. Nevertheless, in 2015 the trial judge reversed the jury’s verdict and the judgment against Sloan, granting her a new trial. At the time of the reversal, the judge said he believed Sloan may not have received a fair hearing of her claims.
“It is enough that the [DPS] report casts heavy shadows on the integrity of the PFD investigation that was the bedrock of Farmers’ trial defense,” wrote Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Arthur Anderson.
An MCAO prosecutor noted at the time the case was dismissed that the PFD investigators and Farmers had an “incestuous relationship.” That situation was further reflected in the view of Maricopa County Judge Christopher Whitten, contained in court records from the dismissed Sloan prosecution, which stated the PFD and Farmers’ investigators had worked “hand-in-hand together,” and that the suppression of certain evidence amounted to “disclosure sins.”
Through depositions of Farmers’ investigators, Sloan and her attorney found evidence of those sins. For example, in 2009 Farmers had brought in a private arson investigator, Robert Laubacher (IAAI’s 2007 “investigator of the year”), to assess Sloan’s insurance claim. During the course of that investigation, Laubacher consulted repeatedly with Richardson. Laubacher’s independent reports to Farmers differed from those of the PFD investigators, with Laubacher initially telling the insurance firm that “the fire started from an unknown source. No arson or suspicious fire.”
In June 2009, following a meeting with Richardson, Laubacher reached a different conclusion, indicating that his report would find the fire to be an act of arson (though he did not name Sloan as the perpetrator). Despite that change in his official report, Laubacher later called his superior at Farmers and said he believed it would not be in the best interests of the company to label the fire as an arson.
Sloan claimed that Laubacher’s initial reports and records related to his concern over the later arson conclusion would have been helpful as exculpatory evidence in her criminal case, but Farmers had deliberately withheld that information because the insurer hoped to void her claim either through her invocation of Fifth Amendment rights, a plea agreement or a finding of guilt in the criminal case.
That assertion was borne out through further depositions of Farmers’ employees in the civil litigation, with a number of the company’s representatives admitting that, acting on advice of counsel, they had deliberately suppressed exculpatory evidence.
One Farmers’ employee who admitted to such practices during a deposition was claims manager Bill Payton, who acknowledged that the practice of suppressing exculpatory evidence that could help their customers was an “unwritten rule.” Payton admitted to having done this himself five to 15 times.
As reported by Phoenix NBC affiliate 12 News, Sloan said she felt her insurance company “was literally setting me up.” Her lawsuit remains pending.
Sources: www.aol.com, Inside Edition, www.azcentral.com, www.usatoday.com, www.12news.com