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Probe Reignites 1944 Circus Fire Arson Theory

March 24, 1991|LYNNE TUOHY | THE HARTFORD COURANT

HARTFORD, Conn. — "I just see a big flash and a lot of people in the dark with just their faces showing and the flames coming up all around their faces."

The dream haunted Robert Dale Segee.

The vision was of the Hartford circus fire of 1944, the fire that killed 168 people.

The fire he claimed to have set.

Segee's signed confession was given to law enforcement officials in Columbus, Ohio, on June 26, 1950--nearly six years after the Hartford holocaust. He was a muscular, 14-year-old runaway and circus hand at the time of the fire.

His statement and brief interviews with his mother and sister were compiled over the course of three days. The report measures 33 single-spaced, typewritten pages marked "Privileged and Confidential." It was forwarded to Connecticut State Police that summer.

The flame-enshrouded faces in Segee's dream spoke. They said to him over and over again: "You were responsible."

Ohio authorities were certain that he was, although he later recanted his confession. Connecticut officials apparently never questioned him.

Instead, they held fast to the conclusion of the original investigation, released six months after the July 6 fire: A smoldering cigarette, carelessly tossed from a section of the bleachers, had ignited the fire.

But a new investigation casts serious doubt on that finding.

After nine years of work, Hartford Fire Lt. Rick Davey has determined that the fire was deliberately set. His conclusion is based on new techniques and a review of long-forgotten documents stored in the basement of the state library.

Davey presented his findings to a panel of federal arson investigators in late February at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va. They agreed that a cigarette could not have started the fire.

One of the agents, Tim Huff, was a key researcher in a California study in the 1970s which proved that a smoldering cigarette, even if dropped into dry hay or grass, could not ignite a fire if the relative humidity was above 23%. On the day of the circus fire, the humidity at 2 p.m., when the afternoon show began and 20 minutes before the big top was engulfed in flames, was 41%.

The FBI refuses to comment on the case. Agents say the investigation is ongoing.

Davey's findings are expected to prompt a re-examination of Segee's relation to the Hartford circus fire.

"I would look closely at his possible involvement," Davey said. "Especially given the statements made by Segee and in light of the original fire cause being disproved."

Hartford State Atty. John M. Bailey is reviewing the voluminous documents and reports Davey gave him. He also is researching whether, after nearly 47 years, there is any way to prosecute Segee if Davey's arson determination is valid.

There is no statute of limitations, or deadline, for bringing murder charges, but prosecutors would have to establish that an arsonist intended to actually kill people to secure a conviction.

The charge of arson murder--involving deaths resulting from an arson--was not a crime in Connecticut in 1944. All other criminal charges in Connecticut carry a five-year statute of limitations.

While Bailey would not detail his review of the case, he said he was shocked that Segee never was interviewed by Connecticut authorities.

"That is beyond my comprehension," Bailey said in early March.

The circus and its insurers paid out $3.9 million in damages to the victims and survivors. Seven top officials of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus were sentenced to prison for negligence.

Segee was convicted on two counts of arson in Ohio in 1950, sentenced to a term of four to 40 years and paroled after serving eight years. He was released in 1958 and arrested again on an arson charge in 1960. Law enforcement officials in Connecticut are trying to determine the outcome of that arrest.

Segee is 61 and living in Ohio. He was reached several months ago, during the Courant's review of Davey's theories and information. Segee did not want to discuss the Hartford circus fire.

"I can't talk to anyone about that. It's happened too long ago. I don't want to," Segee said. "I've been tested enough and they ruined my life.

"I didn't set the fire," he said. "I was had." When asked by whom, Segee declined to elaborate.

Segee first retracted his detailed confession to Ohio authorities five months after making it, while serving his arson sentences at the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield in November, 1950. The occasion was his questioning by police in connection with a Massachusetts murder.

An Ohio State Police report notes that during that questioning "Segee stated that all the fires and homicides he is accused of committing came about as a result of his telling about his startling dreams and vivid imagination. All the publicity given Segee's case was based upon his dreams rather than on the actual facts told."

No sworn statement was taken at that time. Only the synopsis of Segee's remarks by Ohio troopers is available.

A typical verbatim exchange:

Q: The big fire at the circus, how did you set it?

A: I could have set it any number of ways. They had the tents covered with gasoline and oil to keep the rain off. Even the slightest bit of fire would take hold of it very quickly. I don't know why I set it.

Q: Are you satisfied in your own mind that you set the Hartford, Conn., circus fire?

A: Yes, but I don't remember how I set it.

Segee said someone shook him and "when I came to I was standing on my feet with my clothing and shoes and stockings on and I ran in and tried to help with the people."

He described his feelings at the time he came to. "I was excited and afraid and I never had that feeling before." The dreams began almost at once. "I kept having bad dreams about all these people.

"I actually did feel at first that I was responsible for it, but as the years went on I tried to tell myself that I wasn't. But lately, when I have thought about it, I feel that I am fully responsible."

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