HAMILTON, Ohio — It’s one thing to determine the cause of a fire. It’s another thing altogether to catch the person who did it.
That’s the challenge facing investigators since determining Monday that arson was the cause of a Dec. 28 house fire in Hamilton that resulted in the death of 28-year-old firefighter Patrick Wolterman.
It’s a case Hamilton police have vowed to work around the clock to solve.
But it won’t be easy.
Colerain Township Fire Captain Darian Edwards has studied and investigated arson for 20 years and said, while arsons account for about 25 percent of fires nationwide, less than 20 percent of those cases result in an arrest.
That's partly because, Edwards said, every other cause must be ruled out before arson can be designated. But another reason is the very nature of what it can take to extinguish a fire.
“We have to do our job, do it safely, put the fire out,” Edwards said, “but also in the back of your mind realizing that there may very well be evidence here that we’re starting to walk over, throw out the window, put water on.
“So now we’re also, if we’re not careful, possibly altering or destroying evidence,” he said.
And that’s just finding the suspect. Butler County Prosecutor Mike Gmoser said, in some cases, it can be equally difficult to try in court because of all the forensics involved.
“Forensics in arson has been going on for decades, with respect to flammable substances, how things combust, how smoke travels, how fire travels,” Gmoser said. “Once those are established beyond a reasonable doubt, then we have a better handle on being able to prove that someone was involved.”
Gmoser said his office prosecutes two or three arson cases each year, but none will be as high profile as the case against whomever police will charge with killing Patrick Wolterman.
There is currently a $20,000 reward for anyone with information leading to an arrest. And Gmoser said that total is growing.
“As the money mounts, hopefully there will be some interest in somebody coming forward to do the right thing for whatever reason,” Gmoser said.
Circumstances surrounding the house fire on Pater Ave. were already unusual when the blaze was still in progress: Officers were responding to a triggered burglar alarm at the residence when they discovered the fatal fire.
Wolterman and other firefighters entered the burning building because they were advised that someone may be trapped inside. But at the time, no one was home -- the homeowners, Lester and Bertha Parker, were on their way to Las Vegas to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary.
Wolterman, a rookie with the Hamilton Fire Department, was laid to rest on Dec. 31. He was married last May.
Wolterman grew up in the Cincinnati area, graduated from Roger Bacon High School in 2005 and earned his fire science degree from the University of Cincinnati. Wolterman also worked for the Colerain Township and Fairfield Township fire departments before taking the job in Hamilton.
Investigators ask anyone with information that could lead to an arrest in this case call CrimeStoppers at 513-352-3040.
WCPO's Marais Jacon-Duffy, Greg Noble, Tom McKee and Evan Millward contributed to this report.