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The Blaze 'Speaks,' Investigator Listens

The preliminary report on John Veysey III's house fire points to the Christmas tree as the likely cause. But Jack Malooly is doubtful.

November 24, 2002|Sharon Cohen | Associated Press Writer

CARY, Ill. — Every fire scene has something to say, and Jack Malooly does his best to hear it.

Two weeks after the house on High Road was swept by fire, he arrived at the blackened shell as part of a new federal team called in to help local investigators. A stocky, ruddy-faced ex-cop with a walrus mustache and a gold ring bearing the initials of an elite task force, the National Response Team, Malooly had prowled the scenes of hundreds of disasters, from Oklahoma to Pakistan.

Two decades with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had made him a master of an often fiendishly tricky science: ferreting out the origins of fires.

Once, after a blaze in a U.S. Army building in South Korea, he gathered the melted clocks to see when each had stopped. That created a trail to the source.

"You have to be patient and methodical and curious," he said.

Now he was investigating John T. Veysey III -- and the fire that had almost killed Veysey's wife, Deserie, and his son, Little John.

From the start, Cary police Det. Ron Delelio had suspected that the fire was no accident, and he had dug into Veysey's past -- gathering records, conducting interviews, trying to piece together a puzzle. But he could only go so far. He was no fire expert.

Enter Jack Malooly.

Following his own special style, Malooly starts outside, circles the ruins, examining scorch marks where flames have escaped, then works his way inside, moving painstakingly from least damage to most, sizing up a fire in a language all his own. Anything combustible is a "fuel package." A quick-hit arson is a "splash and dash."

When he arrived in Cary, the preliminary fire marshal's report pointed to the Christmas tree as the likely cause -- possibly the string of lights.

Right away, Malooly doubted that. Christmas trees don't burn as easily or as long as people think.

There were other clues in the living room. The fire had reached flashover, the instant when hot gases turn a room into a raging furnace. If the fire had started in the tree, Malooly figured, that would not have happened because the tree was next to windows, which would have shattered quickly, allowing hot gases to escape.

Something else was to blame, he thought.

"What do we have here in this corner?" Malooly asked another agent.

An overstuffed chair had been there. All that remained were pieces of charred frame, stacked outside.

Could it be that?

Malooly bought three of the same chairs. He shipped them to the National Institute of Standards and Technology outside Washington, where lab workers touched them off under a steel hood fitted with equipment to measure the intensity of the fire. Each went up like a torch.

For Malooly, that clinched it. The fire had started in the chair -- he'd swear to it.

As he worked, other investigators were busy too, retracing Veysey's footsteps, interviewing former co-workers and ex-girlfriends, plowing through yellowing financial records.

One afternoon, Delelio, still working the case, was thumbing through Veysey's credit card receipts when he came upon one with a name that sounded like a chemical company in Florida.

He grabbed the phone. A Florida police officer soon confirmed that a garage at the address had been raided and someone was selling GHB -- the so-called date-rape drug -- over the Internet.

The hairs on Delelio's neck stood up.

Bodybuilders sometimes take GHB, and Veysey lifted weights. But it also was a knockout drug that can cause amnesia. Delelio had interviewed women who had dated Veysey and said they had passed out or had dizzy spells after he gave them drinks.

It was too late to know, but he wondered: Had GHB been in the water Veysey handed Deserie -- her last memory before the fire?


Another unanswered question, at least as troubling, nagged the investigators: How had Veysey's first wife really died, three years earlier?

Like Deserie, Patricia DeBruyne Kemp Veysey, divorced with two children, met her future husband through a newspaper personals ad.

They settled in Twin Lakes, Wis., where disaster struck in September 1993, three months after the wedding. A gas explosion blew their house to bits; no one was home at the time.

The blast came four days after Veysey increased his insurance. He collected $363,587. (Just two years earlier, Veysey had had a serious fire at the same house. He had collected $198,000 in insurance and rebuilt it.)

By the summer of 1994, when John IV, Little John, was born, most of that insurance money was gone, mainly spent on cars, furniture and a home in the scenic Mississippi River town of Galena, Ill.

The following spring, Veysey was unemployed, having just left a job as a real estate agent. He had five mouths to feed, including Patricia's two children from her first marriage. His bank balance was down to $2,761.64.

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