Phoenix Arson Squad Comes Under Fire for Allegations of Questionable Arrests

PHOTO: Two Phoenix arson investigators, Fred Andes, left, and Sam Richardson, right, are accused of conducting shoddy investigations that led to questionable arrests.
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UPDATE: Since our “Nightline” report first aired, the Department of Public Safety concluded their investigation and recommended investigators Sam Richardson be charged with six counts of false swearing and Fred Andes be charged with one count of the same. All are felony charges in Arizona. No charges against Jack Ballentine were recommended, though all three have been placed on “alternative assignment.”

The Phoenix Fire Department's elite fire investigations unit, once lauded as the most successful arson squad in the country, is being investigated for allegations of misconduct.

The unit was making arrests in over half the Arizona city's arson cases, a soaring statistic in a field where arrests are notoriously hard to come by.

But now, Phoenix arson investigators Sam Richardson and Captain Fred Andes are accused of conducting shoddy investigations that led to questionable arrests, and the unit's director, Jack Ballentine, is accused of putting pressure on his team to make arrests before completing full investigations in order to get high case clearance numbers.

Two people have come forward claiming that the Phoenix fire investigations unit falsely accused them of arson.

It started back in 2007, when the department's fire chief hired a new squad director hoping to improve the unit's clearance rate. The unorthodox choice was Jack Ballentine, a highly-decorated police detective had no background in fire investigations.

"I've spent my whole career undercover, all the years doing that," Ballentine told ABC News in 2010. "And then, I've finished my career in homicide… and it seemed like a great challenge."

It was Ballentine's idea to take firemen from the department, including Richardson and Andes, and turn them into cops with guns and the power to arrest.

"We get these highly trained and skilled firefighters that go into the fire scene and can see it and read it," Ballentine said in 2010. "They've spent their whole life in it. It's like an old friend to them… then what we do is, we take them to the police academy. They go 18 weeks of school to get certified as a criminal investigator. That's huge."

When ABC News first interviewed Andes in 2010, he admitted the transition wasn't easy.

"We had no experience whatsoever. We had no idea what we were getting into," Andes said at the time. "We were pretty comfortable on a fire truck. We were pretty comfortable fighting a fire. Then all of a sudden, we're asked to investigate the fire, and we didn't have a clue."

Andes seemed to recognize the dangers of putting a firefighter into an investigator role.

"[Firefighters are] usually overly aggressive and we have to be careful because of safety concerns that we don't push our luck too much," Andes said in 2010. "So when you take firefighters and put them into a unit and make them investigators, we still have that same characteristic, we just don't know what to do with it."

To aid in investigations, Andes was given a new partner: Sadie, a specially trained arson dog, whose highly trained nose can detect tiny traces of accelerants, such as gasoline or lighter fluid, commonly used in arson cases. When the dog picks up the scent at a fire scene, she sits, or "alerts" and is given a food reward.

Between Ballentine's leadership and Sadie's nose, the Phoenix arson squad's case clearance skyrocketed. The squad went from making arrests in only 22 percent of cases in 2007 to making 65 percent in 2010, the highest in the country.

"My first couple years in here, I think we'd all know when somebody was making an arrest because it only happened a couple-three times a year," Andes told ABC News in 2010. "Now there's three or four a month and we don't even pay attention when somebody else has got one, we're working on our own cases."

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