Scene of the Crime: The Leeds Household Fire
While the city slept, the Leeds household had mysteriously burst into flames. Jetta Carlson, a camerawoman aboard Copter Three, captured the first panoramic glimpse of the fire. Appearing to Doug Abado, the pilot, at twelve o’clock due west, the conflagration seemed to have erupted fortuitously for her benefit that very moment. A gasp escaped her throat but also a sigh. It had been a long shift for the pilot and camerawoman in support of On-the-Sport News. After a crowded schedule this week and an even more grueling day, Jetta was tempted to ignore her discovery and call it quits for the night, until the helicopter passed directly over the fire. That moment, without comprehension, an enthusiasm gripped her, for she could literally smell the news. Below a column of acrid dark smoke, the white-hot flames rose up that moment to an elevation, she estimated, of approximately three hundred feet. She had been able to tell immediately by its suddenness, color, and altitude that it was not a typical blaze, but now she discovered something extraordinary about the fire.
In the wind whistling and rattling through the copter, the pungent odor of sulfur mingled with the fragrance of burning wood in the smoky air. Sulfur, also called brimstone, was a byproduct of volcanic activity, and seemed out of place in a residential blaze. When they were close enough to see the details of the inferno and catch the drama of the first fire truck arriving on the scene, Jetta motioned excitedly to the pilot to circle around the raging fire. The fiery framework of the house was immediately beset with columns of water. Time was running out. The photographic moment, Jetta was certain, would soon pass. There was an urgent tone in her voice, as the crackling flames rose further and further up into the sky. Jetta Carlson, a veteran camerawoman, had in her sights a potential scoop—one more news story in her checkered career, sensing, with journalistic intuition, something more sinister than a residential fire.
For Doug Abado, the exhausted pilot, it was just one more side trip on their journey back to the station. For a few moments, his bloodshot eyes remained focused on the night sky ahead, his only goal to park the copter, drive home and crawl into bed alongside of his slumbering wife. He ignored, from the corner of his eye, the familiar and annoying signals made by Jetta’s tiny brown hands. Pretending he didn’t hear her excited exclamation, “Fire and brimstone, down below,” he held firm to the stick, accelerating instead of decelerating as she repeated this exclamation into his ear.
“Uh-uh, no way Jetta,” he said firmly as she held her camera up and continued to motion excitedly for him to fly over the fire. “You’ve got enough footage. Let someone else call this one in.”
“Come on Doug,” she begged, zooming in with her lens on the rising flames, “there’s something unnatural about that blaze. Look how high the flames are shooting up, not like a house would burn at all, but more like a factory blazing or chemical fire.”
“It’s one-thirty am,” the pilot drawled irritably. “We’ve covered a hot pursuit, two freeway pile ups, and a bunch of silly detours that had nothing to do with the news. That’s a residential blaze down there Jetta, not a five alarm fire. Let the guys on the ground find one for a change!”
“But this one’s different Doug,” she implored, her finger poised again over the camera trigger. “I smell sulfur—fire and brimstone—in the air. What could that mean? Have you ever smelled sulfur from a fire? Give me one low flyover for five minutes, before we head back—just five more, Doug, that’s all!”
Doug groaned and gnashed his teeth but found himself yielding reluctantly to Jetta’s pleas. His hand turned the cyclic stick gently and smoothly, though agitation brewed in his mind. As her petite body balanced the massive camera on her fragile shoulders, a loud curse escaped the pilot’s mouth as the copter banked sharply and returned to the sector above the fire.
“That’s right, Doug, just a quick fly over, a teensy-weensy look,” she cooed, reaching in with a free hand to extract the cell phone from her coat.
Catching sight of the gesture, Doug exclaimed angrily “I know what you’re doing, Jetta. You’re calling the station again. You’re going to make a big deal out of this, like that nonsense in Griffith Park and that ridiculous detour over the beach!” “Well, I’m not hanging around this time,” he vowed, as the copter hovered angrily over the fire. “You got five minutes, Jetta—five goddamn minutes, then I’m heading back to the station!”
“Hello, this is Jetta Carlson, is this Fritz Meyers, the swing editor?” She asked in a muted voice.
“Why can’t you let those sons-of-bitches find their own stories?” Fritz could hear the pilot shout on the other end.
“Copter Three, you’re late,” the editor responded lazily into the phone.
“I’m taping footage of a spectacular fire,” she announced blithely, as complaints flowed out of Fritz’s mouth.
“You been freelancing again, Jetta? You know what the chief thinks about photo journalists. We got time limits here at the station, Jetta. Your pilot must really be pissed!”
“I need a follow-up on the ground—a team to interview witnesses near the fire,” she shouted over the helicopter blades that had grown louder as they hovered over the fire.
“Witnesses? Are you kidding? It’s 0135—graveyard hours. “Where in the hell are you, Jetta. You two were due in at midnight. That copter must be almost out of gas.”
She mumbled the location to Fritz, who turned back suddenly to his meal. As the pilot continued to grumble under his breath, Fritz, who seemed to be chewing on a sandwich, looked up the schedule and came back with two names.
“Let’s see,” he muttered to himself, “Valentine Getz, a rookie, and Milo Flores, his cameraman, are available, after holding over for that Star Trek Convention across town. Says here that News Van Five—Stubbs and Rodgers—broke down last night.” “Wait a minute,” he whistled under his breath, “that’s at the Anaheim Convention Center, about thirty miles away.” “You want I should send them over for a look-see?” His voice took on a cavalier air.
“All right Fritz,” she sighed, looking longingly at the scene below, “we’ll have them cover the fire. But by the time they get there, the flames will have died down and the firefighters will have put it out. Do you think Gus would mind me grabbing footage, myself?”
“It’s just tape,” he laughed sarcastically. “It’s the time, he minds, Jetta, not the footage. Go for it girl!”
“Thanks, Fritz, I’m going to do just that,” she signed off quickly. “Please, Doug,” she turned pleadingly to the pilot, “stop swearing, you want that to be on the tape?”
Doug laughed hysterically. Though dampened significantly, the fire still rose over a hundred feet in the air as fire fighters battled the blaze.
Suddenly, with the volume on her camera turned up and the copter directly above the inferno once again, Jetta Carlson’s crinkly voice was recorded in the background as official footage was taken of the Leeds household fire:
“This is Jetta Carlson for On-the-Spot News. Copter Three is overhead a fountain of flame that sprang up just as I was ready to put my gear away for the night. A late night news van will be covering the scene within moments, but before the conflagration dies down, I decided to capture these spectacular shots on their behalf. As you can see, the flames are shooting up over a hundred feet in the air. The commotion below, through the smoke, tells us that the fire department’s in control. Yet I smell sulfur and see a white hot inferno below me. I hope to God no one’s in that burning house!…”
Because of the late hour, most residents of Los Angeles and Orange County would not hear or read about the Leeds household fire until the next day. The Leeds’ neighbors, after making several 911 calls, however, stood by on the sidewalks and lawns in their bathrobes gawking at the blaze. Company Fifty-Eight received a call at the station from the dispatcher several moments before Copter Three’s Jetta Carlson spotted the fire. The sound of sirens brought out more gawkers up and down the street, until several dozen spectators accumulated in front of the burning house. Some of them, drawn by concern or curiosity, inched in as close as they could to the inferno before police officers cordoned off the area, keeping the gawkers at bay until firefighters finally arrived.
After the clamorous, nerve-shattering arrival of Company Fifty-Eight’s fire trucks, a larger than normal buffer area had been ordered by Operation Battalion Chief Everett Sloan around the unnaturally hot fire, forcing onlookers to wait across the street on Wallace Schoolcraft’s lawn. By the time the news van arrived, the firefighters, as Jetta feared, had almost put out the fire, the dark column of smoke, seen for miles around, had disappeared, and most of the spectators had returned home to their beds. The few witnesses, who had already gave their accounts to the police officers, now hung in the shadows on Schoolcraft’s lawn, looking across the street with jaundiced eyes at the amateurish attempts made by rookie newsman Valentine Getz at covering the fire. Getz, due to his inexperience, had completely ignored the main body of spectators, opting instead to stand with his cameraman Milo Flores on the opposite side of the cordoned off area to editorialize on what he had overheard so far about the fire:
“According to witnesses, the house exploded like a Roman candle, projecting a shaft of fire three to four hundred feet into the air. Neighbors felt the earth trembling and smelled sulfur in the air, as if a volcano erupted beneath the house, sending a column of black smoke miles into the night sky…”
The cameraman winced at this elaboration upon the facts, but said nothing this time. The already murky truth from late arrivals had now been stretched into utter fantasy. As Doug Abado, the Copter Three pilot, Milo Flores was saddled with an eccentric partner, who was, unlike Jetta Carlson, inexperienced to boot. In the case of the reporter and his cameraman, the newsmen had been promised the day off tomorrow after substituting for News Van Five, which made it easier for Milo to bide his time. While young Valentine had delusions of grandeur, the veteran cameraman had a vision of a shower, late night meal, and twelve hours of uninterrupted sleep. Ironically, the Leeds closest neighbors, Wallace Schoolcraft and Felicity Brown, gave the most important details to the police, and were missed entirely during the noise and commotion. Not one person in the hangers-on Valentine talked to, Milo noted with irritation, even knew the householders’ names, and yet they offered the reporters metaphors on the elevation, color, and smell of the blaze he would use in the remainder of his coverage of the fire. Getz loved to hear the sound of his own voice. Everyone, except the late arriving newsmen, had smelled sulfur emanating from the fire, a feature the reporter overplayed at the end of his report: “It was in the words of one neighbor ‘fire and brimstone raining down upon this sinful house.’” But neither the reporter nor Jetta Carlson of Copter Three had the slightest clue as to what might have happened here last night. This information, which had been provided by next-door neighbors that Valentine Getz had overlooked, had been gathered already by Officer Bruce Gandy before the firefighters, themselves, had even arrived on the scene.
When the reporter was satisfied with his footage about the fire, he and his partner packed up hastily and left the scene. Thanks to Valentine Getz, the only facts about the fire that would be aired in the morning news were that there had been a residential fire and that witnesses say smelled like brimstone. The size and destruction of the fire had been sensationalized by Getz to overcompensate for an amateurish report. Everything else about the portentous fire, including the names of the homeowners, would flow into the media belatedly from the police and firefighter reports, dulling the importance of the event to an unsuspecting world.
For several hours, Fire Company Fifty-Eight under the command of captain Roscoe Hunter battled the Leeds household fire until it was considered suppressed by Battalion Chief Sloan. Officer Gandy suspected foul play after talking to neighbors at the scene. There had been no appearance of Cora Leeds outside this house for several months. Yesterday, Felicity Brown informed Gandy, an ambulance had pulled into the Vale’s driveway, and the attendants had raced into their home, but when the attendants returned they brought an empty gurney out of the house. This had smacked of domestic violence to the veteran police officer, who wrote on a new page of his notepad: Detectives should check dispatch log for 911 calls.
That evening according to Wallace Schoolcraft, Cora made a spectacle of herself before Adam left. At one point she unfastened her robe in order to flash a motorist passing by. The couple wrestled at the doorway until the reverend drug her inside. After Adam had driven away, the same motorist returned with a bag in his hand and entered the house. At that point in his investigation, Gandy wrote another important note below the first: Need detective follow-up: motive corresponds to neighbor’s suspicions. The reverend had motive for domestic violence. Perhaps he set fire to the house.
The neighbors had seen strange goings on in this house for quite some time. Almost unanimously, they saw something sinister in the fire, ranging from Felicity’s reading of brimstone as God’s judgment to Wallace’s belief that the reverend murdered his wife. All of them agreed that arson and homicide were afoot. Officer Bruce Gandy, however, was a patrolman, not a detective. He had, with a thoroughness that had earned him respect in the department, gone as far as he could go. After submitting his report, it was up to the homicide division to act. In accordance with current policy, he would allow chief Sloan to see his report before sending it by remote fax machine to the Homicide Division of the LAPD. His private notes would be shared with the sergeant assigned to the case, including his personal view that a homicide occurred at this address.
Based upon Officer Gandy’s report and the bizarre nature of the fire, Hunter and Sloan also suspected a crime scene. Strangely enough, however, in spite of the report and suspicious circumstances at the scene, there was no body found in the burnt out frame or, for that matter, evidence of an inflammable liquid that might have started the fire. Sulfur, in itself, the captain reminded the chief, was not a flammable; it was the result of extreme heat as in burning slag at a foundry or volcanic eruption. It had no place in such a common house fire. Inexplicably, in place of a fuel odor, the police officers, firefighters, and neighbors all claimed to have smelled sulfur (otherwise known as brimstone) in the air. Unfortunately, this evidence, if that’s what it was, faded, along with the fire and smoke, in the morning air. After smothering the last of the flames and miraculously preventing the fire from spreading to surrounding structures, the captain, battalion chief, and fire fighters sniffed in vain for the telltale odor in the air. When the battalion chief declared that the fire was suppressed, he and the captain also searched the burnt out frame in utter futility for suspicious cans or rags to indicate that arson was the cause of the fire.
In spite of the utter lack of evidence, Battalion Chief Sloan called Deputy Fire Chief Sid Barnes over his cell phone to request a formal departmental investigation of the fire. Although he was not ready, as Gandy suggested, to bring in a homicide team, the officer’s report convinced Barnes that an arson, perhaps a homicide, occurred at this residence last night. The suspicious circumstances of the blaze and the claim by witnesses that the wife had not left the house were important factors in an arson investigation. The other information gathered by Gandy, (the rumors that there had been strange goings on in this house and that Adam had been arguing with his wife) were matters for the detectives, not the fire department, to solve.
Sloan had been surprised at how quickly Barnes responded to his request. He didn’t know that Sid had recently joined a fundamentalist church up town, and his mind was imbued with apocalyptic visions of the End Times. As if Sloan had said the magic word, Sid interrupted him midway through his discussion.
“Brimstone?” he cried. “You smelled brimstone?…. Are you certain Everett?”
“We all smelled it,” Sloan replied reassuringly. “I remember smelling it on my vacation last year in Yellowstone National Park. That was brimstone, Sid. I’m certain of it!”
“And you say the flames shot up hundreds of feet?”
“And you’re certain the house belonged to Adam Leeds?”
“Yes, I’m certain, but you didn’t let me finish,” Everett spoke more rapidly now. “There’s more, much more. The policeman at the scene interviewed several neighbors who think he murdered his wife. There’s a history of domestic turmoil at that house. Right before the reverend left for the night, he quarreled with his wife. A stranger drove up after Adam left and entered the Leeds house—”
“What?” The deputy fire chief gasped. “This sounds important. Give me the address Everett. After I call dispatch, I’m coming down there myself!”
With a element of trepidation mingled with his excitement, Everett gave his superior the address and directions on how to reach Adam Leeds’ house. Had he opened some sort of Pandora’s box? Why would the deputy fire chief get this excited over a residential fire? Circumstances yet unknown to the captain and battalion chief were bringing Sid Barnes to the scene and to the core of the investigation.
Sid, who had once attended Our Lord and Savior’s Independent Church when it was ministered by Hugh Thomas, knew the young “heretic” pastor who replaced Hugh. It was as if a shot of Jack Daniels registered in his blood stream as he listened to Sloan’s voice on the phone. Adam Leeds’ new age message had been the reason why he and his wife Vicky quit the church and began going to another, more conservative church uptown.
“That heretic son-of-a-bitch!” Muttered Sid, a crafty grin sliding onto his weather beaten face.
As quickly as possible now, he did his own “homework,” although he had no doubts that Adam murdered his wife. Not only did he call the dispatcher but, while waiting for her verbal summary, called Sloan back and asked him to use the patrolman’s remote fax to send him a copy of the report. Without argument, Officer Gandy, who had been waiting to hear the deputy fire chief’s reaction, himself, took the handwritten report back to his car and faxed a copy to Sid. Sid’s wife gave him a glass of water and pill as he stood impatiently waiting for the fax, certain that his blood pressure must be elevated by now.
“Calm down dear,” she cooed, patting his shaking hand, “what’s all the dither about?”
“Calm down? What’s all the dither? Do you know what this means?” He looked into her naive blue eyes, as the first page slid slowly out. “It’s another sign Vicky…. Damn, I’m getting me a new fax. To top it off, its possible our ex-minister murdered his wife!”
“Cora? That dreadful woman!” Vicki stood reflecting upon the reverend’s troublesome wife.
“Yes, Cora Leeds,” he made a face. “It’s a wonder he didn’t do her in a long time ago!”
As his wife made them a cup of tea, he listened with pencil and pad in hand as the dispatcher read back all of the 911 calls for the Leeds fire made last night. After several moments of writing down the same complaints that were merely worded differently, Sid thanked her for her efforts and hung up. The information given to him by the dispatcher and the report sent by Officer Gandy were mere technicalities necessary to make a case. As he would tell Vicky at dinner tonight, “I feel it in the marrow of my bones!” He would never admit this to anyone but his wife, but he was certain that they were living in the End Times; the Leeds Fire was but one more omen or sign.
According to the current police report, the Reverend Adam Leeds’ neighbors had been suspicious of him and his wife for quite some time. There were no telephone calls logged in by the emergency dispatcher and only hearsay evidence that marital problems existed in the Reverend Vale’s house. Sid and Vicky, however, had heard Adam’s heretical sermons and seen Cora’s deplorable behavior in church. Sid called his old friend Dwight Higgins and learned that Adam, who had fallen out of favor with members of the church, had not shown up for a meeting with the elders that evening at Dwight’s house. That’s enough evidence, he told himself, his mind reeling with this news. Moving from his pajamas to his uniform in what Vicky thought was record-breaking time, Sid slurped a mouthful of tea to please his wife, kissed her chubby check, then sprinted out-of-breath to his car.
As he drove from the suburbs, dimly lit silhouettes of distant skyscrapers against the subdued lights of the city reminded him of the late hour. It was nearly three am, he noted, as he followed Everett’s directions over the phone. Several more hours of darkness, the worst time to investigate a fire, lie ahead of the LAFD.
Where has the heretic minister gone? He asked himself, as he raced across town. Where is his troublesome wife, if she wasn’t cremated in that house? After mentally piecing all the hearsay and circumstantial evidence together, Sid realized that a mere fire investigation for arson was not enough. This, his bone marrow told him, was a homicide. As he approached his destination, Sid called Deputy Chief Randall Walker of the LAPD Homicide Division to request an official police investigation of the case. It was a bold move awakening Randall and his wife at this hour. At this stage in the investigation, it was impossible to talk Walker into sending a homicide squad to the scene. Randall wanted more than Sid’s instincts before committing his men. For the time being, the lack of a body as well as physical evidence of arson threw a roadblock in front of Sid’s plans. Walker promised to send a homicide squad to the scene when the fire investigator had proven that arson was the cause of the fire. This requirement, in effect, before Sid even arrived at the scene, amounted to a refusal of his request. Unfortunately for him this time, other than the witnesses’ unfounded opinions, no such evidence had been found.
To make matters worse that morning, the fire investigator and his team who arrived shortly before Barnes, quickly lost Sid’s confidence when they told him that there was, in fact, no evidence of arson for the fire. In spite of the earlier assessment by the fire captain and battalion chief that it might be a crime scene, there was also disagreement now between Deputy Fire Chief Barnes and the other fire officials at the scene as to the necessity of bringing in detectives and a homicide team from the LAPD. Without the remains of a dead body or at least physical evidence of arson causing the fire, Captain Roscoe Hunter and Battalion Chief Everett Sloan, the original advocates of an investigation, were not interested in bringing in the police.
There was, Barnes was acutely aware, a certain awkwardness between firefighters and the police when the fire was out and the jurisdiction hinged on whether or not a body had been found after suppression of the fire or if there was at least arson involved in the fire. In the case of the Leeds fire there appeared to be neither, and yet for Sid Barnes the suspicious nature of the Leeds fire seemed obvious. Not only did Adam Leeds’ neighbors claim that Cora Leeds had caused an embarrassing scene before he left last night, but a stranger visited her right afterwards and did not leave until later that evening. Now, after talking to Dwight Higgins, Sid could add to his list Adam’s failure to show up for an important meeting that night. There was, Barnes recalled from experience, both motive and opportunity, the prime indicators in a murder but no evidence and no body…. In the eyes of law enforcement there was therefore no case.