NBC News4 Anchor Chris Lawrence (left), Chief Kevin McGee (center), Chief Stephen Hudson (back row, right of center) and Commonwealth Attorney Paul Ebert (2nd from right) congratulate the recipients Lt. Dave Cooper - Fire Marshal's Office, Prince William County Department of Fire and Rescue; Lieutenant Brad Miller - Fire Marshal's Office, Prince William County Department of Fire and Rescue; Lieutenant Angel Tyson - Fire Marshal's Office, Prince William County Department of Fire and Rescue (not pictured, now with Prince William County Sheriff's Department); Supervising Special Agent Steve Avato - Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Special Agent Chad Campanell - Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Special Agent Paul Parisi - Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Detective Saemi Kitchens, Prince William County Police Department; Detective Maria Cervantes - Prince William County Police Department; Crime Analyst Supervisor Dawn Locke-Trillhaase - Prince William County Police Department; Detective Jason Callahan - Prince William County Police Department; Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Claiborne T. Richardson II and Special Agent Keith Palli - Federal Bureau of Investigation
At 4:45 a.m. public safety units responded to a reported structure fire at the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Gainesville. It took approximately one hour to get the heavy smoke and fire under control. No one was injured in the fire but the building had damages amounting to over $500,000. The building was deemed unsafe to occupy and church leaders had to move to an alternate location for services.
Fire investigators from the Prince William County Fire Marshal's Office proceeded with an investigation into the origin and cause of the fire. Resources were requested from Prince William County Police and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to assist in the investigation. It was determined that the fire was deliberately set, and a tip from a concerned citizen aided in developing a person of interest.
Lt. Dave Cooper, Lt. Angel Tyson and Lt. Brad Miller assisted by Special Agent Chad Campanell and Special Agent Paul Parisi working exhaustively to obtain information regarding the activities of their person of interest before, during and after the fire. This person would not cooperate in interviews and eventually fled the Northern Virginia area. Undeterred, the investigators proceeded to coordinate a cohesive, multi-agency investigation with strategic input and guidance from Prince William County Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Claiborne Richardson and Supervising Special Agent Steve Avato. The primary investigators assisted by Detective Maria Cervantes, Detective Saemi Kitchens and Detective Jason Callahan proceeded to gather case information through structured interviews, court orders, search warrants, and other legal means in their persistent efforts to obtain the facts and circumstances surrounding this case. Throughout the course of this investigation, Crime Analyst Dawn Locke-Trillhaase provided invaluable information regarding the person of interest and his known affiliates by continuously accessing her broad range of intelligence resources and submitting the results to the investigative team.
Through relentless collective efforts by the investigators and detectives sufficient evidence was developed to obtain a felony arrest warrant for the crime of arson just four and a half months later. Investigators were now tasked with locating and apprehending the accused party. Through intensive intelligence, including the usage of informants, it was ascertained that the accused person intended to return to the Northern Virginia area. Covert surveillance was initiated and an arrest team was assembled. After close coordination, the accused was arrested without incident and charged with felony arson.
After the arrest, time-sensitive search warrants were obtained and executed at various locations throughout the County. It was learned that the accused had an interest in an obscure ideology that potentially provided motivation to maliciously burn the church. Special Agent Keith Palli and his colleagues along with Lt. Tyson performed extensive research on this ideology that led to a complicated affidavit for search warrants with the assistance of ACA Claiborne. The magistrate authorized three search warrants which were immediately executed. Special Agent Palli also served as a contributing member and liaison for the FBI, attended key case briefings, assisted with the execution of a search warrant and assisted with critical witness interviews.
The ATF personnel provided support for the entire investigation that included assisting with the preliminary origin and cause, pursuing leads and developing evidence, additionally coordinating the use of the ATF Fire Research Laboratory in Maryland to expedite evidence processing, and facilitating briefs for the United States Attorney in the case that federal charges were pursued.
Detective Kitchens, the case agent for the police criminal investigation, obtained and executed search warrants for the suspect's residence and DNA. Kitchens also obtained felony arrest warrants on behalf of the Prince William County Police Department.
As a result of collaborative and persistent efforts by investigators and detectives, a compelling circumstantial case was constructed, which led to the accused entering a guilty plea in Prince William County Circuit Court. Serving as lead prosecutor for the case, ACA Richardson did an exceptional job of representing the Commonwealth Attorney's Office and protecting the citizens of Prince William County.
Investigators and detectives had to overcome many challenges to bring this case to a conclusion. Due to the destructive nature of fire, there was a limited amount of physical evidence recovered from the scene that connected the perpetrator to the crime. Investigators had to resort to a seamless, systemic, and methodical investigation using all available tools and resources to build this case in preparation for criminal prosecution. The successful arrest, apprehension, and prosecution of the accused would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, without the personal sacrifices and the collaborative, relentless cohesive team effort demonstrated by each of these personnel from many different agencies. Because of their selfless dedication to seeing this case through to completion, Lt. Dave Cooper, Prince William County Fire Marshal's Office; Lt. Brad Miller, Prince William County Fire Marshal's Office; Lt. Angel Tyson, Prince William County Fire Marshal's Office; Supervising Special Agent Steve Avato, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Special Agent Chad Campanell, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Special Agent Paul Parisi, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Detective Saemi Kitchens, Prince William County Police; Detective Maria Cervantes, Prince William County Police; Detective Jason Callahan, Prince William County Police; Crime Analyst Dawn Locke-Trillhaase, Prince William County Police; Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Claiborne Richardson, Prince William County; and Special Agent Keith Palli, Federal Bureau of Investigation are receiving the Investigative Merit Award.
*Investigative Merit Award - For a cumulative body of investigative work including, but not limited to: detailed crime scene processing, significant evidence identification, collection and analysis, and substantial investigative contributions to the successful closure of a major case or series of cases.