Oklahoma City's fire investigators straddle lines of firefighting and policing
The suspected teen arsonists have no idea Oklahoma City fire investigators Capt. Steve Strother and Capt. Brian Cosner woke up that morning hot on their heels.
The first stop is Emerson Alternative Education, which one of the students attends. He hasn't yet arrived, but the school resource officer promises to detain him when he does. The investigators head north, hoping to snag the other one in the meantime.
Administrators at Oklahoma Centennial High School tell them the second accused firestarter has been kicked out of school. They ask the school to lure him in, but providing the former student's address is as far as the school will go to help.
A phone call to Oklahoma City police has officers waiting in the North Highlands neighborhood, near Britton Road and Broadway Extension, when investigators roll up.
There is an answer at the boy's home, but they're told he's not there. More officers roll up as they knock on the door of another house where they have been told he might be found. Even more arrive by the time they're at a third house.
By the time the trail goes cold and police are dispersed to other calls, they receive word that the first one is in custody.
"I've never been arrested for arson before," is the only thing Jairen Bell, 16, will say before the handcuffed teen is picked up from the school by police and taken to the county jail.
Strother and Cosner book Bell on a first-degree arson complaint from an Oct. 18 incident at 936 NW 105, according to the probable cause affidavit.
"The manager of the apartment building called us and said that they'd tried to apprehend two young men that they'd found in this apartment that they were remodeling. The guys broke through the window, jumped out the window and they grabbed them," Strother said.
An employee had walked into the unit as a wad of paper towels was being set alight on the stove. Other residents of the apartment building were at home when the fire was set, making it first-degree arson.
The employees managed only to get a first name from one of the teens before they fled, Strother said.
"We had two witnesses, two girls in the apartment complex, who actually knew the boy's name. That's how we managed to connect them to what school they belonged to," he said.
With Bell in custody and the other likely alerted that law officers are looking for him, the second arrest is not expected to come as easily.
But it's only noon, and Strother and Cosner are on duty for another 19 hours.
Strother, 54, is the senior investigator with 24 years of service at the fire department. He's only been handling fire investigations since 2015, but started as a Canadian County reserve sheriff's deputy in 1995.
All fire investigators have years of experience as firefighters. Being fully certified and commissioned law officers by the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training, they carry firearms and have the authority to make arrests.
They work the cases as a police detective would, building evidence and identifying and detaining suspects. The only thing they don't do is take suspected arsonists to jail, because their vehicles are not equipped with cages.
Arson arrests aren't the only responsibility the investigators have. It's also their job to determine the cause of large fires.
"It takes your senior firefighters to do this job effectively, because they know what they're looking for. Some of them you can walk into and it's rather obvious. Some of them, we can go in in about 30 minutes and say it started in this area, and in others, we might dig three or four hours trying to figure it out. Whenever we get into electrical fires, you have to do a little more digging. We won't give an exact cause on that, because they're considered accidental fires," Strother said.
"Any fire that we consider incendiary, we definitely spend a lot more time on because we're looking for more evidence and we're trying to pinpoint who might have started it. We always try to make a determination on the fire, cause and origin, on every single fire, but we're always more interested in the incendiary fires where we have criminal intent," he said.
What investigators stay away from is accidental fires where the cause of the fire might result in civil lawsuits.
"Insurance companies have their own fire investigators, and we do try to work with them. A lot of times I'll even mark certain items as evidence for them. That way the homeowners won't mess with anything or throw it away, especially if it's like a toaster oven or something that could have set the fire. I don't have that knowledge to go in and say it actually started inside the toaster. I say it started at or around the toaster," Strother said.
Cosner is his counterpart on the shift, one of four teams of fire investigators. While they usually work in trios, there is currently a vacancy on the shift. Firefighters who are thinking about requesting a slot often visit on their days off, asking questions and riding along with investigators in hopes of securing a job.
Cosner, 37, a former driver and paramedic firefighter at Fire Station 13, came to investigations in November 2015.
"I was just looking for something a little different. I was packing a lot of baggage. My last year in suppression, I had a lot of dead and dying children and I didn't realize how much it was affecting me. Something was driving me to check out the investigation office.
"Everyone wants to try out down here, and then once I got my foot in the door, I realized how much I needed it. It turned out to be a very welcome change," Cosner said.
"We've got this weird little niche that we fill and that's one of my favorite parts about it. There's 12 of us down here, and we don't get to go on every single call, but when we go out, there's no one else who can do what we do," he said.
While Cosner is Strother's junior in age and firefighting experience, he said his partner never makes him feel that way.
"I don't ever feel like he wants to be the alpha male, but I feel like we're more equals than any other officer that I've worked with. We're the same rank, but he's the senior guy on this shift, but I've never felt like I've played second fiddle to him on anything," Cosner said.
"He doesn't mind doing the dirty work. He's never said, 'Hey, new guy. Go get you a little hand shovel and dig through this burned stuff.' He's elbow deep in it with me."
Strother previously worked in code enforcement, while Cosner has an eye for detailed fire reports.
"Grammar has been something that I'm a stickler for. I learned that as a paramedic doing reports because there's only a few ways to look like an idiot in front of your chief, and one is to turn in a report with misspelled words and the other is having expired drugs in your bag and I'm not a fan of doing either one, so I don't like looking silly when it comes to that," Cosner said.
Cosner has not yet made it to the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md., an intensive course in fire investigation, though he's applied.
"I do what I can on the fire investigation side, but I turn into a pit bull whenever it comes to tracking people down because that I know I can do. I can sit for hours and look at camera footage. You just have to have the patience and the will to do it. I'm looking forward to getting to the fire academy and learning some more tricks," Cosner said.
After grabbing a barbecue lunch and running case files to the prosecutor in juvenile court, Cosner and Strother decide to make another pass on their second suspect.
Again, they're told he's not home. They knock on a couple more doors and talk to some neighborhood kids before the boy's father calls Cosner. The teen has returned home, and they're willing to speak with the investigators.
With a signed warrant already in hand, they radio to police again and an officer is dispatched. The investigators converse with the teen and his father in the driveway before the police officer arrives. Once he does, 15-year-old Kamari Stafford is handcuffed and put in the car.
The interview will continue at the Oklahoma City Fire Prevention Office.
Once his father arrives, Stafford tells the investigators his side of the story. The boy's father urges him to tell them everything he knows, and details from the incident three months prior come back when his memory is jarred. Even though he comes clean, the arrest warrant already has been filed, and Stafford is booked into jail.
The "youthful offender" status of first-degree arson means both teens will be spending the night in the Oklahoma County jail instead of juvenile detention.
The boy's father and grandfather are polite to the investigators. The children in their van are sent home with coloring books and stickers from the fire department.
The investigators plan to inform the prosecutor about Stafford's cooperation, but the prosecution is out of their hands once the investigation is complete.
The sun sets into a cold January night. The investigators fully expect to have to go to a fire scene after dinner, but instead spend the evening catching up on case files.
"We put in a hard day running around and, occasionally, we don't get harassed at night," Cosner said.
"When we're out doing follow-up, it's not uncommon for us to leave at 7:45 or 8 [a.m.], and we'll be back around dark. If the chief needs something, he'll call us on the phone and we're at it all day long.
"I'm really excited that we located those two boys and we at least got to interview one of them. I wish the first young one had let us talk to him, but as far as foot mileage goes and mileage on the truck, it's probably been a pretty slow day," Cosner said.
Two hours after their shift ends, a fatal house fire is dispatched at 9:11 a.m., but investigators on another shift get that one.
Bell and Stafford were charged in Oklahoma County District Court with one count each of first-degree arson, court records show.