Jumbled clues make a hard crime to solve

Princeton Packet
2 March, 1990

Jumbled clues make a hard crime to solve

By John P. McAlpin
Staff Writer

Ray Wadsworth stood watching his family’s dreams become chemical reactions and knew the truth before the county prosecutor made it fact.

While battling Monday’s blaze, the volunteer firefighter said he could tell someone had deliberately turned his bakery, the neighboring diner and ice cream shop into a Nassau Street crime lab.

“I’ve been to arson school. I knew what was going on — I’ve seen those things before,” Mr. Wadsworth said.

Fifty-four hours after the fire was out, the verdict was in, officially.

Mercer County Prosecutor Paul T. Koenig called the fire an arson, explaining that investigators had pinned the start to several areas in the kitchen of the burned-out American Cafe.

Mr. Koenig ‘and his teams of investigators from three branches of government used more than a gut reaction to make that determination.

Arson leaves no single smoking gun for detectives to find. Instead, investigators must deal with a pile of smoldering evidence that eventually builds up to mean arson and nothing else, they said.

“It’s an accumulation of all the facts,” said Mercer County’s top arson inspector. After poking, digging and scouring the scene, investigators can begin to make their assessment, said Lt. Al Heyesey from the county prosecutor’s special investigation unit.

“There comes a time when you have to make a determination and that is not done lightly,” Lt. Heyesey said.

Often arson inspectors start their job when the firefighters are in the middle of theirs.

If they cannot be on hand, those who were are questioned, Lt. Heyesey said.

“We make observations, noting what color the flames are and what color the smoke is. Different materials will burn in different colors and make different kinds of smoke,” he said.

Once the fire is out, the investigators begin their work in earnest.

An accidental fire, under normal conditions, is predictable,” LA. Heyesey said.

“When we see Kane unusual conditions, then we have to find out why that is unusual,” he said.

By examining the charcoal squares left on burnt wood, investigators can tell how fast the fire burned, the lieutenant said.

Metals melt at different temperatures. What is left after a fire is often a roadmap of where the flames went and how fast they got there, Lt. Heyesey explained.

Investigators can tell what the arsonist used to start the blaze, he added.

When an accelerant is burned over concrete, the moisture inside turns to steam, escapes rapidly leaving a crater, another telling sign in the mounting case.

“Yet, just because there’s an accelerant doesn’t immediately mean it’s an arson. You can have gasoline in your garage for your lawn mower start a fire. It’s an accumulation of the facts you find on the scene,”- Lt. Heyesey said.

Those facts often can give investigators a hand in determining motive and opportunity, two more keys to a criminal prosecution.

“If we’re investigating an arcade and we find that in every one of the machines the coins have been emptied two days before they were supposed to be, that means the individual wanted to squeeze everything he could out before the fire,” Lt. Heyesey said.

“If a person wanted to burn his own house, and they had a pet that they love”, we will check to see where that pet waS not the time of the fire. If it was outside at a time that it wasn’t supposed to be, or Kat was sent to the kennel that weekend, that’s a clue,” he added.

Investigators combine a number of disciplines — construction, chemistry physics and psychiatry — to make the final judgment.

“It’s like looking inside of a bag of garbage for the clues to a puzzle,” Mt. Koenig said.

“Things are underneath some things that they really should be above. It’s all pretty jumbled,” he said.

“It really is one of the hardest criminal investigations,” the prosecutor added.

“I’m not totally sure of all the details, but the business was insured for the contents and in the event of the interruption of business,” said Mr. Otis.

He explained the contents were insured for $50,000 and an unplanned interruption, such as one caused by a catastrophe, to diner business was insured for $30,000. The latter may not even be collectible since the pause in business may never be mended, added the attorney.

Mr. Azzollini woes surrounding his loss may be further aggravated by an arson investigation that could postpone settling up with his insurance company, although the funds would only make a dent in easing his financial troubles.

Three years ago, Mr. Azzollini and his two partners purchased the diner for $275,000 before the trio sunk another $125,000 into renovating it, said Mr. Otis. The attorney added that Mr. Azzollini took out a personal loan for his share of the investment and the restaurant owner is still obligated to pay it off.

“The most, if he’s lucky, he can collect is $80,000,” said Mr. Otis, later adding, “He owes that plus they (the proprietors of the diner) have some debts that he has to pay off. There’s no way, shape or form he could be in the black (with the insurance money).”

Asked whether the arson would hold up his client on collecting any insurance dollars, Mr. Otis said, “I don’t really know the answer to that question except that, obviously, the insurance will be tied up until the investigation (is completed).” He later added, “Certainly the insurance situation is on hold.”

As far as who would benefit from the diner’s insurance policy when and if it is paid, Mr. Otis said the money would be divided equally among the three owners after the diner’s debts are paid. Mr. Azzollini, who .had left for California the morning before the fire, owns the eatery with David Pardo, who had been out of the country during the blaze, and Eddie Antar, who is a fugitive being sought by federal authorities.

Mr. Antar, of Crazy Eddie’s fame, failed to show up last week for a U.S. District Court hearing in Newark. Crazy Eddie Inc. went bankrupt, but Mr. Antar has been accused of hiding $52 million in a foreign bank account.

Mr. Otis said once the investigation into the arson is concluded, either it will or will not lead to the arrest of anyone. In either case. his, client will deal with the insurance company on whichever basis, he said.

Noting that there is no need for representation yet, Mr. Otis said he has been Mr. Azzollini’s lawyer as well as his friend for some time.

“I have always been Nick’s at-torney,” he said, adding that he is not representing Mr. Pardo or Mr. Antar.

Questions over what is salvageable at the diner, whether it could be rebuilt and if the owners have any plans for another Princeton restaurant remain unanswered. According to Mr. Otis, the diner had been on the market for some time when the fire occurred and had dropped from an asking price of $319,000 to $275,000.

“Right now, it’s too early to say what’s going to happen, ” said Mr. Otis, adding that Mr. Azzollini, as of a couple of days ago, had still not found employment.

Leave a Reply