Fruitland chief: Actions of firefighter arsonist 'slap in the face'

Monday, December 10, 2012
Dean Riley

For four months, Dean Riley has been a man consumed.

Over sleepless hours, the Fruitland fire chief has analyzed the few short months the two men were under his command. He's puzzled over missed signs, changes in behavior or an ominous offhand remark -- anything that could have served to foreshadow those early morning hours of Aug. 18.

What Riley has come up with is this: He's never going to understand how two of his firefighters could come to face arson charges for setting a house on fire while a man slept inside.

That, Riley said, is the antitheses of what being a firefighter is all about.

"This happens all over the world and nobody can understand it," Riley said. "I know I for damn sure can't."

Gordon Schafer

Riley refers to Gordon Schafer and Christopher Bruce, both of Jackson, the now former volunteer firefighters with the Fruitland Area Fire Protection District. The two men who, on the morning of Aug. 18, called in a fire that was burning a house right next to the fire house on U.S. 61. Schafer and Bruce, the same two who then joined in with the rest of the firefighters as they worked simultaneously to extinguish the fire and rescue the resident who slept inside.

Schafer pleaded guilty and was sentenced to second-degree arson last week. Riley and the others knew that Bruce also had been called in for questioning in the hours after the fire -- and the resident -- was out. But only Schafer was charged at first.

The day after Schafer's plea deal, a judge signed an arrest warrant for Bruce and charges of first-degree arson were filed against him. Schafer's deal called for him to testify against Bruce, which apparently is what prosecutors were waiting for.

As of late Sunday, Bruce had yet to be taken into custody. But the charges alone were enough for Riley to agree to speak out against the two former firefighters.

When the two men were taken in for questioning, Riley said, the department as a whole was shocked. Both of them seemed "like normal, everyday guys," he said. They both paid attention during training. Both went efficiently about their tasks. And neither of them seemed to fit whatever the profile seems to be of the clichéd firemen who set fires.

But Riley was more than just puzzled. He also was furious. The men in his department felt betrayed, and Riley worried about a loss of credibility within the community.

"It's just a huge slap in the face when it happens to any department," Riley said.

Arson statistics are erratic, but they're easy to track. Missouri, last year, recorded 1,507 arsons and 300 arrests, according to data maintained by the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

In Cape Girardeau County, six arsons were reported last year, but that number has jumped to 27 so far this year, with fire officials labeling the fires of 21 buildings and six vehicles as incendiary.

But the number set by firefighters is harder to determine. A 2003 study by the U.S. Fire Administration found there are no hard data about the prevalence of firefighter arsonists.

Riley and other fire officials said Sunday it is rare, though it sometimes seems less so because of the attention drawn by such cases.

And, to the frustration of Riley and other fire chiefs, it also seems difficult to predict. He's asked himself the question repeatedly: What did he miss?

"There's nothing I've been able to come up with," Riley said. "It's been very hard to get my head around."

Riley has taken it personally, too. He sees it as a failure.

"I'm the fire chief over the rest of the officers and the board," he said. "We're all held responsible. Somehow, we let the community down. Thank God no one was hurt."

But, Dennis Stegall, the man who was in the house when it was set ablaze, doesn't blame Riley, or anyone else who remains in the ranks of the department. In an interview last week, Stegall said he was shocked when one and then another firefighter was charged, but he understands most firefighters aren't like that.

"I'm not going to judge the whole department because of a couple of bad apples," he said. "I didn't even know those two. Firefighters or not, I can't figure out why they did it either."

At least one of Riley's colleagues says a firefighter arsonist would be almost impossible to spot in advance.

"Unfortunately, no," said Alvin Frank, chief of the Delta Fire Protection District. "It upsets you and they're breaking the trust and the reputation the fire service has worked to build for years. But you never know what somebody's going to do until they do it."

Still, as Riley begins to watch another one of his former firefighters begin to work his way through the court system, he disagrees that either should have been charged with arson.

The charge he would have favored was attempted murder, he said.

"A man was asleep inside the house when it was set on fire," Riley said. "That's a little more serious than playing with matches."


Pertinent address:

273 U.S. Highway 61, Jackson, Mo.

Map of pertinent addresses

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