January 22

Authorities charge ex-USM student president in 2012 dorm fire

Some are surprised that Thomas ‘T.J.’ Williams, a dedicated student at the time, is suspected in a fire that forced 200 people to flee.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Sgt. Joel Davis of the State Fire Marshal’s Office said not all fire-setters have a history of crime, and there are different motivations. Some fires are set for revenge or to cover up evidence of another crime. There are also so-called vanity fires, in which the fire-setter wants to appear to be a hero, he said.

Davis would not discuss the evidence in the case or what investigators believe Williams’ motivation was, but said it fell into one of those three categories. He has not been charged with any other crimes beyond the arson charges of destruction of property and recklessly endangering lives.

Williams was identified as a person of interest early in the investigation and was interviewed several times, but the investigation was time-consuming, Davis said.

The State Fire Marshal’s Office collaborated with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on the investigation, taking advantage of the federal agency’s state-of-the-art technical abilities.

“We look at it very seriously because it’s a building occupied by 200 students,” said state Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas. In 2000, a fire in a dormitory at Seton Hall University in New Jersey killed three students and injured many others in one of the deadliest dorm fires in history. Two students were indicted three years later.

Computer modeling was used to reconstruct the materials and burn pattern inside the USM closet, and then a replica of the closet with the same contents was built and burned at the ATF facility in Beltsville, Md., Thomas said.

The information from that analysis was compared to the statements given by numerous witnesses to determine inconsistencies and discrepancies, he said.

“It’s a whole new tool we have to really look at the science and the behavior of the fire and see how that correlates to the information we’re being provided by witnesses, by suspects, by anybody offering a visual perception,” Thomas said.

Investigators – and ultimately prosecutors – are then able to say “scientifically you could not have experienced those things at that time because of this,” strengthening the case, he said.

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com

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