Firefighter on trial for arson: Did fire marshal have animus?

A suburban Cook County firefighter is standing trial, accused of arson in a small fire at his own bar. But the defense contends the firefighter is wrongly accused, contending racial animus by the fire marshal involved in the investigation.

Country Club Hills Firefighter Samuel Wilson was no stranger to Illinois State Fire Marshal Kevin Smith as Smith began investigating the origin of the small fire at Wilson’s bar in Sauk Village, Ill. on October 24, 2015.

Following Smith’s investigation, Wilson was charged with two counts of arson for a fire he put out himself at Levels Bar.

Wilson is now on trial facing, if convicted, between three and seven years in the Illinois Department of Corrections. His attorney contends that his client is innocent, wrongly accused because of the fire marshal’s past animus.

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“Kevin Smith looked directly at him and said, ‘If you ever put those big Black lips on my fucking face, I’ll put .45 air vents in your body,’” Wilson’s attorney, Daniel Franks said during his opening statement. Wilson’s supervisor made it clear to Smith that he was no longer welcome at that firehouse, Franks said in his statement.

The trial, which was interrupted for more than a month, resumes Wednesday. On the first day of trial on December 5, Smith, who was called by the State as an expert witness in arson investigations, recalled that he had met Wilson once before he began his investigation into the 2015 incident at Levels Bar. Asked on the stand about that past meeting, Smith said he joked with Wilson and another firefighter that he would not let them put their mouths on his during CPR.

Markham Courthouse / Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As the trial resumes Wednesday before Cook County circuit judge Carl B. Boyd at the Markham Courthouse, Smith will return to the stand for cross examination. Boyd is hearing the case without a jury.

The State said Wilson was behind on rent and writ for money, and that he was seeking to collect money to compensate for the fire damage. But the defense said that although Wilson contacted his insurance provider to let them know of the damages, he never filed an official claim. The defense also said the damages from the fire amounted to around $200 or $300 maximum.

Franks said the evidence will show that although Wilson had not previously called the police, the fire was not the first time damage was done to the bar.

Further, the defense contends there is evidence that a rowdy group of young men, not Wilson, were the likely culprits. Franks in his opening described evidence that the young men were retaliating for a time when Wilson had thrown them out of the bar for rowdy behavior and high levels of intoxication. The morning of the fire, Wilson had stationed himself nearby in order to try to catch the group in the act of vandalizing the bar yet another time, Franks said.

Called as a prosecution witness, a former employee of Wilson’s named Robyn Green, recalled previous vandalism of the sign, though she said she did not remember the windows being damaged. Green no longer worked at the bar at the time the fire occurred.

Officer recalls arriving at scene

Sauk Village Police Officer Andrew Vaughn testified that in the early morning on October 24, 2015, Vaughn was patrolling the city’s streets when Wilson waived him over and called, “He’s running this way!”

Vaughn said that he and Wilson ran together for about 100 yards eastbound past a strip mall. Unable to locate anyone, Vaughn testified, they turned back and Wilson led Vaughn to the bar where, Vaughn said, Wilson described putting out a small fire in the windowsill with his hands. Vaughn said Wilson showed him a swelling on his head where he said a vandal had struck him before fleeing from the scene.

Vaughn said earlier that morning, he had seen a man wearing a mask and all black clothing. In cross examination, Franks showed Vaughn a protective hood worn by firefighters that does not cover the face, and asked Vaughn if this piece of fire gear was the mask to which Vaughn was referring. The protective fire hood, Vaughn said, closely resembled what he had originally referred to as a mask.

Boyd refused to let Franks ask about an unidentified person Vaughn saw that morning near the bar, a detail that was not included in police reports.

Vaughn said after the fire was put out that he called for the fire marshal on duty as well as other Sauk Village police officers to come to the scene. Fire and police officials, including Smith, then investigated the fire’s cause.

Smith testified that he was the state marshal on duty in the area at the time.

Smith recalled questioning Wilson on the day of the incident. While he said he did not recognize Wilson initially, he testified, he eventually remembered having met him previously.

The Illinois State Fire Marshal’s Arson Division does not have any official policy on the circumstances under which a state fire marshal would recuse himself from conducting an arson investigation, Arson Division director Terry Olms said in an interview.