Tilting At Windmills: The Case Of The Adolescent Arsonists
Published: March 4th, 2022
By: Shelly Reuben

Tilting at Windmills: The Case of the Adolescent Arsonists

The history of the building that we were brought in to investigate was so dramatic, it was almost unconceivable. It sat on fifteen acres in suburban Pennsylvania, and was envisioned as a retreat for soul-searching priests. The three-story structure was assembled in a “V” shape, with a long driveway bordered by ten-foot high statues of scowling Catholic saints. Eight on each side.

Fast forward to, for whatever reason, the Church selling the property to a Baptist ministry with millions of dollars to spend on educating evangelists and spreading their message throughout the North East. Soon after they unpacked their bibles and hooked up their telephones (I kid you not), they beheaded all of the statues of all the saints.

But we aren’t done yet.

Once this second batch of religious devotees also abandoned The Keystone State, the land and buildings were bought by New Beginnings, Inc., an alcohol and drug rehabilitation facility that accepted private patients for a fee, and addicts between the ages of thirteen and nineteen who were remanded by the courts.

Immediately upon taking possession, New Beginnings bulldozed and buried the beheaded saints. They set up programs to help the alcohol and drug addled, and developed a reputation for being well-run and effective. Graduates often went on to college or trade schools, and forged paths toward productive lives.

Before Shelby Allen, the rehab’s director, called Charles G. King Associates for help, New Beginnings had not had a single fire – not even an accidental one – since it opened its doors five year before. Then … two fires in one week. The first, on May 3rd, started in a wad of napkins tucked between the cushions of a chair in the game room on the second floor. The second, on May 5th, began in crumpled notepapers inside a metal wastebasket in Study Hall D on the third floor.

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Both were small fires, by which I mean very small fires. The one in the chair self-extinguished, and the one is the wastebasket was easily stomped out by a 16 year-old with big feet.

For a series of reasons – legal, managerial, municipal, and judicial – that I couldn’t even begin to comprehend, Shelby Allen and his Board of Directors were not permitted to call in the fire or police departments. To do so would violate New Beginnings’ confidentiality agreements with their residents, which (or so the law demanded) was to be honored at all costs. Contradictorily, it was also the primary responsibility of New Beginnings to keep their patients safe, which meant making sure that they didn’t get burned to death in the middle of a counseling session or while brushing their teeth.

In order to escape this quagmire of conflicting necessities, what Shelby Allen did was to call two private detectives whom we liked and had worked with before: Gloria Nall, an ex-FBI agent whose area of expertise was giving polygraph tests, and her partner, Larry Duke, who expertly did everything else (finding missing persons, locating stolen property, uncovering insurance fraud, etc.) But not investigating fire. So Larry called Charlie, and on Monday, two days after the second arson fire at New Beginnings, we were sitting opposite Shelby Allen in his big, sunny office (lots of plants on the window sill), being briefed about the building’s history, the beheaded saints, the Catholics, the Baptists and, obviously, the fires.

Shelby was a big black bear of a man, with huge shoulders, twinkling brown eyes, and a smile as big as one drawn with whipped cream on a pie plate. Other than his engaging personality (I could imagine troubled teens being instantly drawn to him), he had a couple of PhDs in whatever subjects he needed to run a drug rehab empire, and a history of addiction himself.

He had a sixth sense about how to outsmart and out-manipulate cunning substance abusers, but no training in forensics, and no clue about how to find out who (singular or plural) set the fires. That was to be our job.

And we had never come upon a case even remotely like it.

Nevertheless, even before we left Shelby’s office, we came up with a plan to overcome the almost insurmountable obstacles of interviewing one hundred and nine teenagers and about twenty staff members within the next twelve hours. For a few reasons, it had to be done quickly. One, to minimize the threat of another (possibly more ferocious) fire. Two, to get statements from the kids in residence before they had completed their programs and/or been transferred to other facilities. Three, for everyone’s peace of mind.

We suggested to Shelby that as soon as we left, he distribute questionnaires to all residents and staff at New Beginnings. Each respondent was to answer these questions about the fires that occurred at 12:00 noon on May 3rd and at 3:15 p.m. on May 5th:

WHERE were you in the thirty minutes before and after the fires were discovered?

WHAT did you see?

WHO did you see?

They were to put their names at the top of the page, write out their answers as fully and completely as possible, and give them to their group leaders before entering the dining room for supper that night. Charlie and I would return tomorrow morning to pick up the statements, discuss what we had learned so far, and then take them back to our office for analysis.

Two days later, we would meet again at New Beginnings to report on what we had learned.

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I will now clarify what “back to our office for analysis” means, lest you imagine banks of computers and white-coated technicians inputting data. The reality translated to me sitting on the floor beside my desk with a yellow marker in my hand, reading one hundred and nine witness statements, highlighting names, and cross-referencing those sightings by time and location on a Very Big Chart. When I was finished, we had come up with three possibilities – all boys – and all spotted by fellow residents in the areas of the game room and Study Hall D at the appropriate dates and times.

Our suspects were: CECIL J – sixteen years old. Remanded by the court; ALBERTO M – eighteen years old. Remanded by the court; ANTHONY R – thirteen years old. Paid private patient.

The next morning, exactly one week after the second fire, we reconvened in Shelby Allen’s sunny office on the ground floor of New Beginnings, and we told him what we had found out. Interestingly, nine members of the staff who had also filled out the questionnaires, stated that they, too, had observed one of our three suspects – CECIL J – under similarly suspicious circumstances: lighting matches “because it’s too dark” near a grease pit that he was supposed to be cleaning … “discovering” a fire in a trash and “putting it out” … tossing lighted matches into a wastebasket … playing with a butane lighter inches from an ashtray filled with tissues that had suddenly burst into flame.

And so on.

At that point in the investigation, our work was done. The teens we had discovered were turned over to Gloria Pell and Larry Duke, the private detectives who had brought us into the case. At Shelby Allen’s request, Gloria would administer lie detector tests to all three. The relevant questions she asked were about fire. Had they set any incendiary fires before or during their stay at New Beginnings ... either for fun, or because they felt a compulsion to do so?

All three boys failed their tests, and all three were instantly expelled from New Beginnings. Or, to quote Shelby Allen in one of his less congenial moods, “We don’t take any chances with the safety of our kids.”

Of course, because of the confidential nature of this case (and because I don’t want Child Protective Services to put me in a gulag), I changed all of the names, dates, location, and even the shapes of the buildings and size of the property. But I did not change what happened, how we narrowed one hundred and nine suspects down to three, or the charm, dedication, and professionalism of Shelby Allen.

And really, truly, somewhere on the grounds of New Beginnings, probably buried beneath beautifully blooming magnolia trees, are the crushed bodies of sixteen once scowling and subsequently beheaded saints.

Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2022. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com