Either getting a confession from a guilty individual or releasing an innocent person is the ultimate goal in the police interview room, but the interview process can be challenging. Most lawyers tell suspects not to talk or provide minimal responses without elaborating. Every extra word out of a suspect’s mouth is a gift—even if those words are lies. When an investigator’s intuition tells him or her that a suspect is lying, it’s a red flag that there is more to the story.
Detectives of the Carbondale City Police Department in Pennsylvania were interviewing Benjamin Christensen as a suspect in a sexual assault case when he inadvertently gave police a lead worth millions. There had been a slew of arsons in the area recently, but the investigation was at a standstill until investigators realized Christensen, who wasn’t even on the radar as a suspect, might be involved. Using an innovative truth verification tool called the Computer Voice Stress Analyzer (CVSA®), Carbondale City P.D. Detective and CVSA Examiner Tom Mackrell managed to get a confession from Christensen and solve the major arson case.
A New Lead in the Arson Case
For nearly five years, Carbondale had suffered a series of arsons at some landmark businesses and buildings. Fiorelli Plaza, Jonal’s Lawn and Garden Center, Mermelstein’s Marketplace, Highway Auto Parts, Fortuner’s Moving and Storage, and two vacant homes were burned—but there were no occupants, no witnesses, and no leads. According to Fire and Bomb Investigator Mike DeFrancisco (who also happens to be a certified CVSA Examiner), arson is a particularly challenging crime to solve precisely because of this frequent lack of witnesses and the fact that any physical evidence is often burnt. He also describes arsonists as some of the most difficult people to understand: “We talk about different types of people who set fires, and one of the things I always say is that the fire setter or arsonist is probably one of the truly craziest people that you see.” As with any criminal investigation, achieving a confession is paramount in determining who is behind an arson.
Investigators first encountered Christensen when a 15-year-old girl accused him of sexual assault. He admitted to having sex with the victim, and since he was 25 years old, the charge became statutory rape. During the suspect interview, Christensen told police he was a volunteer firefighter and mentioned some of the fires he had helped put out. Upon further questioning about Christensen’s whereabouts at certain dates and times, detectives realized he was at the location of several arsons that had taken place between 2004 and 2008.
Christensen denied having knowledge of or being involved in the fires. Detectives Jeff Waters, Aaron Haley, and Tim Mackrell conferred and felt Christensen’s answers sounded credible, but to be sure, Waters suggested offering the suspect a CVSA exam to verify his claims.
The CVSA Exam Leads to a Confession
The CVSA measures signs of stress in the human voice. When individuals lie, the muscles controlling the voice are affected, causing the natural muscle vibrations to change. Those frequencies are then captured through a microphone, analyzed by an algorithm, and displayed in an easy-to-read chart. These vibrations, or microtremors, are involuntary, so the interviewee cannot consciously control or affect the signals the CVSA picks up. Over the course of many CVSA exams, Mike DeFrancisco has found that the CVSA can also pick up stress from previous crimes—a great asset when dealing with a serial arsonist who may lie about more than one fire. If investigators notice such signs of stress, they know they need to ask further questions about other crimes.
The examination charts indicated Christensen’s answers about whether he was involved in the arsons were deceptive. CVSA charts are easy for even a layperson to understand, so Mackrell showed the suspect exactly when he was being deceptive. When faced with this information, Christensen admitted he was involved in two arsons. Later, he confessed to setting seven fires and provided the name of his accomplice.
Resolution and Restitution
By the time Christensen went to court, it was estimated that the 7 arsons had caused approximately 10 million dollars in damages. Christensen pled “no contest” to 5 arsons and conspiracy in the other 2, which were set by him and his accomplice, Robert Woolaver Jr. Christensen was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison, plus 20 years’ probation, and Judge Geroulo ordered Christensen to pay 3 million dollars in restitution. Since Christensen also pled guilty to indecent assault and furnishing alcohol to a minor, he received a concurrent sentence. Woolaver was convicted as well, receiving 4 to 16 years in prison.
When setting the fires, Christensen claimed he chose locations where no one would be inside, as he didn’t want to harm anyone. No one died, but one volunteer firefighter suffered a non-fatal heart attack while fighting one of the fires. Christensen also admitted that he set one fire and then showed up to fight it. At the trial, it was also revealed that Christensen suffered from psychological problems and was taken from his family as a toddler because of abuse. He had been in and out of psychiatric facilities most of his life and was diagnosed as schizophrenic. Local media reported that he described himself as being “angry at the world” when he set the fires.
This case was one of the largest arson investigations in the region, and multiple agencies were involved in the hunt for the perpetrators. At first, it may have been one of those moments of pure luck where someone ends up in a police interview for one case and investigators discover other crimes. Still, there would have been no resolution without the fine work of the investigators and the use of the CVSA to uncover the truth.
Cases like this one motivate law enforcement agencies to add the CVSA to their arsenal of tools. Agencies are using the technology not only for investigations but also for pre-employment screening to ensure they are hiring only the best. Fire departments are also learning more about the value of the CVSA as a tool for investigating arson and to ensure that individuals who may have a propensity for arson aren’t hired. According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, there are approximately 100 arrests for firefighter arson in the U.S. each year. Such a screening may have prevented Christensen from being hired as a volunteer firefighter. Fortunately, this case had a positive resolution. Thanks to the CVSA, two arsonists were taken off the street and the community could feel safe again.
Please reach out to us at NITV Federal Services to learn more about our CVSA systems and training programs.