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Firestarter

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I was stretched out on my futon reading Harpers, the cat asleep on my stomach, when the fire alarm in the hallway went off. I have often heard fire alarms accidentally triggered, so at first I didn't think much of the sound except how annoying it was. Then I looked up from the magazine and noticed thick black smoke as it rolled in like a thunderhead from beneath the door. The next instant, as I stood inside my one-room Deep Ellum apartment in T-shirt, boxers, and sock feet, a single thought hit me with anvil-force: "Oh, shit--I don't have a fire-escape plan."

That was the situation on the morning of January 13, 1999, at 10:15 a.m. Behind me were two windows that overlooked a 20-foot drop onto an empty concrete parking lot. My fear of heights had seemed irrational every other time but now--taking the plunge could easily result in a broken neck or back. Not that my right brain was firing every piston at that moment. Frantic noise interference scrambled the operation: A young woman across the building screamed as if she were being stabbed; a young man who'd just jumped out of his window atop a parked car, his forehead and cheeks seared, yelled, "Get out! Get out!" from the pavement outside. My cat moaned and screeched in the corner; she wouldn't come to me when I called her, and she was quickly obscured by smoke. The shrill whistle of the fire alarm bored into my head like a surgical laser. The smoke wasn't leisurely hazing up the room, but tumbling and billowing across the floor in black cauliflower shapes (the 6-foot runner in the hallway that was set ablaze had a rubber underside, which explained the dramatic carbon content).

I grabbed my telephone, threw open one of the windows, and called 911 with my head thrust out. During the next 10 years--wait, 10 minutes--I had to shove my body halfway out the window because the smoke was pouring into the morning air from behind me. It wasn't the fire department that rescued me, but three Mexican-American construction workers with a ladder who'd noticed the smoke and gotten there before the firefighters. They had also just helped Meredith Pearson, the screaming woman in apartment No. 3, out of her window at the front of the building. (She had just enough time to pull on her nearest T-shirt, which featured the image of Pee Wee Herman, thumb held aloft, over the caption "Masturbate!") At first, a sobbing Meredith refused to leave her own cowering feline, but was finally talked down.

The three heroic strangers with the ladder had to coax me down too, but not because my cat wouldn't budge--beloved as she was, animal rights were not foremost in my mind. I was terrified of the drop and equally petrified at the realization of what I'd have to do to get down--close my eyes and hold my breath, turn back around to face the acrid, inky onrush, blindly stick the lower half of my body out the window, and find the ladder rungs with my sock-covered feet. Miraculously, after several shouted refusals, I managed to do it, the whole time trying to ignore the piercing alarm and the shrieking cat and the smoke coating the burning inside edges of my nostrils. I clung to the reassuring calls of the construction workers, one of whom came part of the way up and offered me a hand.

The safety of being outside the smoke of the Walton Street Apartments didn't feel safe, just surreal, another jump-cut to an extremely different mood. One minute, you're confabbing with your cat and reading a magazine, and the next, you're dazed and soot-covered and wandering in your dainties among firemen, investigators, curious onlookers, and your fellow dazed, sooty survivors. A burn on the forehead of Adam Armstrong, the guy in No. 1 who'd jumped atop the car, was second-degree. Meredith had cuts and bruises, but that was all. The entire time I was examined by the medics in the ambulance, I muttered, "My cat's dead, my cat's dead." Meredith, assuming the same, was barely consolable. But we were lucky there too. When the blaze was extinguished, firefighters burst inside to discover both animals alive, shaken but able to crouch low enough to the ground to survive. Even so, the caregivers were concerned about them. One of those never-to-be-forgotten fire-scene moments: The medic offered to use the oxygen face cup on my cat if she showed signs of inhalation (she did not). Another one for the scrapbook: Capt. Wally Graves, the jovial but no-bullshit veteran investigator for the Dallas Fire Department, pulled out a cigarette inside the charred, scarred, puddle-filled hallway of my apartment building and said, "Anyone got a light?" He was trying to jar Adam and me from our blackened stupor to ask Armstrong a serious question, one that, even when it was finally answered, would propel us through months of testifying and waiting to testify: "Who wants to get you?"  

Graves determined that the Walton Street Apartments, though very old, were fire-code compliant. With no potential heat source, chemical or electrical, near the rubber-matted, six-foot rug outside Adam's apartment where the blaze began--coupled with the obvious fact that the flames had rapidly increased to consume the entire landing and beyond--investigators determined pretty quickly that the cause of the fire was suspicious.

In fact, Adam recalled, he went to breakfast earlier that morning and had indeed spotted what had, over the last few weeks, become a familiar site--a white Ford pickup with the owner sitting inside, watching. It was Tony Rogers, the ex-boyfriend of Adam's current girlfriend, Marina Lara. Rogers had already been haunting Marina at her home and at her work, where he was also employed. Both were registered nurses at Parkland Hospital.

As Adam relayed this information to Capt. Graves, who jotted it down in a tiny notebook, an innocuous memory returned to me in suddenly sinister shades. Although I'm pleased because of the outcome that I had recalled it, this brief, anonymous encounter in my apartment building dragged me into the broken relationships and homicidal jealousies and weird obsessions of strangers and near-strangers, culminating in my participation as the sole eyewitness in a felony trial--not a pleasing place to be. The memory: A half hour or so before the smoke started rolling into my room, I'd been outside in the hallway looking for my cat. I'd almost bumped into a guy standing outside Adam's door, in more or less the exact place where the fire started. We had looked at each other quickly, and I went on about my business. It was not unusual to see a visitor for this or that building tenant waiting outside a door.

Adam and Capt. Graves both stared at me when I told them this. Adam had neither expected nor received any visitors that morning. What did he look like?

Tall and thin, with high cheekbones, sharp nose, small pale-colored eyes, and a wavy, stylish cut on his reddish light brown hair.

"That's Tony," Adam said.


The Walton Street Apartments at Canton and South Walton remain one of the last clinging vestiges of the '80s Deep Ellum that people romanticize--a place where artist-types can live downtown on artist-type salaries. Built in 1912, and at one point allegedly used as a whorehouse, it's a red-brick box with high-ceilinged studio spaces on the first floor and seven single-room efficiencies (whose residents share two bathrooms) on the high second. The wood-frame structure that housed the late, lamented honky-tonk Naomi's sits beside it, now converted to a living space.

Developers are converting every available surrounding space--likely and unlikely, convenient and inconvenient, apt and absurd--into high-dollar dwellings. Walton Street is like the guest who won't wear a top hat and tux to the Deep Ellum real estate soiree but has successfully evaded the bouncer thus far. If you're willing to share bathrooms dorm-style and you're not likely to go insane living in a single room that's variously been described as a shoebox and a monk's cell, you can enjoy downtown living at down-and-out prices.

In my almost four years living there, I've seen all kinds of people come through, stay a few months or a year, and move on. Most of them I didn't form particular bonds with, and Adam Armstrong was no exception. An A/V tech and a jewelry maker, he was just the little guy with the huge eyes I'd see going up the stairwell or in a bathrobe in the hallway on his way to shower. His girlfriend, Marina Lara, spent some time there too, occasionally. But beyond exchanging nods, smiles, and small scraps of conversation, I didn't know Adam from...well, Adam.

Suddenly, our lives were intertwined. I was that rarest of rarities--an eyewitness in an arson case. Arson is one of the top two or three cases most often dropped by prosecutors--because, in the words of Graves, "the hardest thing is to put the match in the arsonist's hand." Already overworked district attorneys must bust their humps even more to string together a necklace of circumstantial evidence, hoping it will be complete enough to dazzle jurors. It's a tricky task--only 2 percent of arson trials end in conviction. In fact, the tall, sharp-nosed, pale-eyed fellow outside Adam's door wasn't laughing maniacally with a Molotov cocktail in his hand. At least, he wasn't when I saw him. But I recognized him again twice from a photo lineup Graves gave me. So it's true that the guy I spotted outside No. 1 was William Anthony Rogers, ex-boyfriend of Marina Lara, but that didn't tell me a whole lot. I didn't know why he was there or what his relationship was to Adam. There could've been drugs or loan-sharking or national security threats involved in Tony's visit to Adam that morning, and I just happened to encounter the guy before something happened.  

As it turns out, Adam Armstrong didn't behave like a guy who had something to hide. He and Marina were active participants in the D.A.'s decision--based on various scattered bits of evidence including my eyewitness and certain facts that surfaced at Parkland, Rogers' place of employment--to bring this case before a grand jury. But on April 7, 1999, the first grand jury issued a no-bill. They were new jurors; grand juries are impaneled for three months, and it's not unusual for them to decline to indict on the first cases they hear because, as some prosecutors have said, there's a "learning curve." Indictments are delivered more frequently toward the end of their service, once they get the hang of piecing together disparate fragments of testimony, not to mention once the horror stories start crowding their consciousness. Adam Armstrong and Marina Lara began an aggressive round of calls to the D.A.'s office demanding to know why, with the facts of Rogers' harassing them and certain details surrounding his job at Parkland and the presence of an eyewitness who could place him at the scene of the blaze, this case had been booted out. They finally got the right attorney's attention, and the case was resubmitted before another grand jury on June 4, 1999. I testified then, as I had not been asked to the first time. The second grand jury indicted Rogers, a warrant was issued for his arrest, and he was taken into custody and charged with second-degree felony arson.

But conversations with Adam and Marina after my grand jury testimony painted a landscape in my mind that I didn't have when I gave written testimony about what I saw to Graves, sooty fingerprints on the paper, the day of the fire. They didn't try to influence me with opinions and speculation--everything they told me turned out to be fact in the hard glare of the courtroom. Tony Rogers was missing from Parkland Hospital at the time that I saw him, the morning of the fire. His supervisor, Donna Crump, already aware of Rogers' increasing moodiness and degenerating personal hygiene since his breakup with Marina, hunted for him to tend to a spinal-cord-injury patient with a fever. He also had an appointment scheduled that afternoon to discuss his abrasive job demeanor.

But his main job in the physical therapy unit of the physical medicine and rehabilitation department at Parkland turned out to be much creepier, given the context of the case I had been dragged into. Tony Rogers, accused arsonist, was responsible for medicating, changing the bandages of, and applying anti-infection ointments to the skin of burn victims.


Ask any trauma or rehab specialist, and they'll tell you there's no more hellish bodily wound than a severe burn. When the skin is cut, blood is lost. When it's burned, blood plasma is lost; that's the milky stuff inside a blister. Any burn that results in a blister is second-degree. Third-degree injuries reach down through every layer of the affected area and destroy tissue permanently, creating a hard, black or white dry wound. Often, these most serious of burns are not painful immediately, because there are so many layers of dead dermis.

Then the treatment begins. Most serious burn victims die of infection rather than the burns themselves; medical professionals are always on the alert to keep the wounds clean so they can heal properly. That means debrading, or cutting away, the dead skin. The deeper the burn wound, the more extensive the skin removal, and the closer the raw nerves get to the surface of the body. This sets up the peculiar relationship of treater and treated in burn cases: The nurses and rehab folks are forced into the role of torturers to keep their patients alive. It's a textbook example of the cure being worse than the disease. Burn patients with severe injuries will cry, scream, beg their caregivers to stop. And if skin graft, reconstructive, and cosmetic surgeries are required, the process can start again and again over months or years.

Co-workers confirmed that Rogers saw all of this firsthand in his physical therapy rounds at Parkland. And although he had plenty of experience with dressing and treating the wounds, his official duty in this scenario was, in a sense, as savior. He administered pain medication to the suffering patients. When they cried and begged, he soothed.  

In an appropriate coincidence, Rogers lived in Corsicana, the Texas town nationally known for producing fruitcakes. A 34-year-old divorced father of two little girls who, by all accounts, treated his daughters well, he lived alone in a trailer on a lot owned by his parents. He tended to brag about his computer knowledge and bowling skills to his fellow RNs at Parkland, and when Marina Lara dated him, he collected spy surveillance equipment--partly as a hobby and partly, he'd told Marina, because he wanted custody of his daughters, and a lawyer had recommended he document any suspicious, inappropriate, and unflattering activities of his ex-wife for family court. This is not an uncommon suggestion for the losing half of a child custody case.

Tony Rogers had no prior criminal record, although both Marina and a previous ex-girlfriend had threatened to get a restraining order against him for stalking. A brick was thrown through the car window of the previous ex after they had broken up and while he hovered near the edges of her life. He would ring her up shortly after she'd arrived at home or work and before she'd had a chance to put down her purse (she began to fear she was being monitored electronically, although this was never proven) and sit in his white Ford pickup parked down the street, watching. Marina herself tried to obtain an order and was told by the sheriff's department that unless an explicit threat of physical harm had been issued, they couldn't do anything.

The arson investigation began in January 1999, and Rogers was fired from Parkland Hospital in March 1999. His supervisor, Donna Crump, refuses, in accordance with the hospital's liability policy, to disclose the reason for the dismissal. She did say during the trial that there were problems before the fire: His "technical" performance was fine, but complaints from co-workers accumulated that he was hostile both to them and to some of the patients, with whom he became especially peevish if they asked too many questions. Then there's that hard-to-establish stalking pattern: Marina was told by her professional peers that he would leave his post at physical medicine and rehabilitation, go up a couple of floors to neural surgery where she worked, stand at the end of the long hallway, and stare at her.

Crump insists the firing was "a separate issue," unrelated to suspicion aroused by Graves, who came to Parkland to see Rogers and talk to his bosses as part of the investigation. But you do the math--suspected arsonist treating burn patients and stalking his ex-girlfriend on the job site. As I see it, they would've fired the guy for leaving the toilet seat up if they could find legally defensible grounds for it. And who could blame them?

But just a few days after the fire, two of Crump and Rogers' co-workers, Shanan Myers and Beth Ellsworth, made a discovery that pulled them right into the middle of the upcoming arson trial. The two women were standing around a computer station in hydrotherapy (the applied water treatment employed to help ward off burn-wound infections) with Crump. The computer was provided for patient information--individual medical histories, drug regimens, appointment schedules--but also had an Internet hookup for general research. They discovered, while perusing the screen, that some peculiar sites had recently been bookmarked--"The Anarchist's Cookbook" for one, and "How To Blow Shit Up Here" for another. Retrieved memory later confirmed that these sites were tapped during Rogers' shift.

Crump promptly contacted Parkland security, which called Capt. Wally Graves, who in turn took custody of the machine as evidence. Rogers was upset that the computer was gone, but he didn't seem to make the connection. Crump, Myers, and Ellsworth, meanwhile, had the unique pleasure of working for several weeks beside a man who'd been accused of stalking and had the strong whiff of suspected arson around him. The three would have dinner at Crump's home at night, her husband cooking, to let off the pressure built up from not being able to tell other co-workers...and, of course, from hoping that Rogers wouldn't find out that they were cooperating in the investigation against him.

I became aware of this only during and after the trial, but in the months leading up to that event, I drifted through a perpetual unease of my own. I was, in Graves' opinion, the "star witness" of the case, since I could place Rogers at the crime scene at the same time his Parkland co-workers were searching for him. But being the finger for a father of two who could get anywhere from two to 20 years in the pen and lose his hard-earned nursing license--a felony conviction automatically gets it revoked--leads to some rough moments of introspection, regret, doubt, a kind of nausea of the spirit. Rogers had worn a long, dark coat when I saw him outside Adam's door, a coat that could've concealed something or nothing. Peripheral evidence was being gathered by prosecutors, to be presented methodically in court, so I was far from the only spoke in the state's wheel. Still, a part of me wished I had either seen him actually light the match (and what might he have done then?) or simply not seen him at all.  


The arson trial of William Anthony Rogers finally took place February 8 through February 10, 2000, a year and a month after Adam, Meredith, and I had crawled out of the second-floor windows of the burning Walton Street Apartments. The prosecuting attorney was Reynie Tinajero, a former Marine Corps sergeant who'd been with the D.A.'s office for two years. Tinajero looks like Gomez Addams' kid brother--shiny blue-black hair, large, darting, ink-black eyes. In courtroom action, he manages to be intense but not intimidating, relentless in his crusade but never quite bullying. After this trial, the defendant's attorney gave him a nickname that he used every time he saw Tinajero around the courthouse--"The Hammer."

Rogers' attorney was Tom Cox, a fellow with an adolescent's oily complexion and a tendency to ask questions that were not so much confusing as confused--as I and other people who took the stand thought, you couldn't really be tripped up by his rambling, multipart queries because you didn't understand what the hell he was asking you. All you could do was say, "Huh?"--not exactly the most self-incriminating response. In the witness room next to Criminal District Court 2, he introduced himself to me as "the dirtbag defense attorney" before I testified and asked me whether I felt certain that the man I saw in the hallway that morning was the man he represented, the man I identified in the photo lineup. I said I did. In fact, we'd practically touched noses.

Also in that tiny office, I met Donna Crump, Shanan Myers, Beth Ellsworth, and a fourth Parkland employee, a quiet, shiningly genial middle-aged woman named Juanita Weaver. She rarely commented during the forced, irrelevant introductory patter we engaged in as we waited for our turn on the stand. She just smiled a lot and read from her Bible.

Rogers had adamantly refused to cop a plea, maintaining his innocence until the first morning of the trial--when his lawyer wanted to bargain. Tinajero, who'd sworn in 16 witnesses and would actually use 11 to make the D.A.'s case, refused. The trial proceeded.

One of the major tactics the defense used to cast reasonable doubt was that forensic tests could not be taken on the 6-foot rug that had burned outside Adam Armstrong's apartment. Investigators were unable to submit the small bucketful of remaining ashes for analysis, because fire tests require a neutral, unscorched sample of the same material taken from another area. This control sample would determine whether an accelerant--a foreign flammable substance--was added to the runner, or whether materials used in the manufacture of the runner itself were flammable. With no outlets, no space heaters, no fixtures, no explosive chemicals within reasonable distance of the rug, and an ex-boyfriend with a grudge spotted at the scene not long before the blaze began, Graves was confident it was arson. But once again, arson is the kind of crime that's proven by proving what it isn't--all physical surroundings indicate it couldn't have been accidental. And then, a parade of what defense attorneys dismiss as "circumstantial evidence" has to be marched before a jury, with the defendant's counsel firing shots at every piece. It's easy to see why prosecutors hate arson.

Capt. Graves spent the longest time on the stand, bandying back and forth with Tom Cox about what he saw as a misleading, trivial detail--it didn't really matter whether the arsonist had used lighter fluid or gasoline or isopropyl alcohol or nothing but a kitchen match to set the fire, when all evidence pointed to an incendiary fire and a suspect with a motive had been identified.

Meredith Pearson took the stand and related her own traumatic escape. She wept when she remembered the plaintive sounds of her terrified cat inside the black smoke. Adam and Marina related their past problems with Tony. And then Crump, Myers, and Ellsworth took their turns, recounting their Parkland experiences with Rogers and their hunt for him on the morning of January 13. They were compelled to admit that several people had access to the hydrotherapy computer where Web sites of destruction had been bookmarked. Juanita Weaver, the silent but perpetually smiling other co-worker, introduced a new, damning bit of testimony: Rogers had told her he wanted to hurt his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend, Adam Armstrong. She counseled him to look to the Lord for relief from his broken heart. Later on, during a different conversation, he asked to borrow her credit card to order unspecified chemicals over the Internet. She offered cash, but he insisted it had to be a credit card. She refused. Juanita is the kind of witness prosecutors pray for, a true bit of divine intervention--as Tinajero made a point of noting to the jury, she had missed Bible study to testify at this trial.  

I, on the other hand, was a "troublemaker"--or that was what Tinajero facetiously called me shortly before I took the stand. Another attempt by defense attorney Tom Cox to dismantle Tinajero's case was to make the Walton Street Apartments look like a den of iniquity. I was the scandalous exhibit A in Cox's implications--At what kind of a place, he wondered aloud to the jury, did men wander around the hall in just their underwear? The kind of a place where people are comfortable and friendly with their cohabitants, I would've answered, but not necessarily friends. But I was never asked. He'd dropped the flophouse angle by the time I took the stand.

I was confident but still nervous as I sat in the hot seat near the judge and the court reporter. A lot of people looked at and listened to me intently, including Tony Rogers, who stared my way without blinking but also without any kind of expression. No sadness or threat was evident. And when I finally met his small, pale eyes--for just the second time in more than a year, but for much longer now--he glanced down.

With a large diagram of the Walton Street Apartments taped to the wall behind me, I had to go through what I was doing the morning of the fire, how far I walked, and where I spotted Rogers. Was it true that I was myopic and wasn't wearing glasses or contacts that morning? Cox asked. Yes, I replied, but in turning the corner to see whether the cat was on Adam's landing, and discovering instead that Rogers was, I'd just barely avoided walking right into him. He was well within the "near" field of near-sightedness. And both of us stood in front of a row of windows where the morning light shone in, so the hallway was unusually bright.

That was really the hardest Tom Cox pushed me. My real moment of violin-swelling drama unfolded like a script from a TV courtroom series, when prosecutor Tinajero questioned me. As I recall, it went almost exactly like this:

D.A.: "Did you see a man outside Adam's apartment the morning of the fire?"

Me: "Yes, I did."

D.A.: "Do you see that man in the courtroom now?"

Me: "Yes, I do."

D.A.: "Can you point that man out to the jury?"

Me: (standing and pointing my finger at Rogers, as the jurors released a collective gasp) "IT WAS HIM!"

Actually, I didn't stand up, nor did I shout. OK, and the jurors also didn't release a collective gasp. But that's exactly how you remember a fairly mundane moment like that. Then my participation was over. Afterward, during closing arguments, in an effort to defuse my spiky hair and my hallway underwear romp as possible obstacles, Tinajero said, "Jimmy Fowler. He's kind of a funny character." Several of the jurors chuckled in assent. "But do you think he's a liar?" There was a general, murmured agreement that I was not.

My gravestone epitaph flew most unexpectedly into the courtroom that day: "He was a funny character, but he told the truth."


Tony Rogers never took the stand, and a prosecutorial prophecy--"If you don't talk, you don't walk"--was fulfilled. He was convicted of second-degree felony arson and sentenced to 17 years in prison, two more years than Reynie Tinajero had asked for during the sentencing phase. Fifteen was the figure he proposed--five years each for Adam, Meredith, and me, to spend time in prison thinking about what he'd done to us. During interviews with Tinajero after the trial, the jurors were eager for him to ask why there were two extra years tacked on to his suggested sentence. It was one year each for Meredith's cat and my own, to spend time in prison thinking about what he'd done to them. I never did find out what he thought about his actions--an interview request with Rogers for this story was denied.

As he was led away in handcuffs out of the courtroom, his mother, who'd given a tearless and angry character defense for her son during sentencing, looked at Adam Armstrong and Marina Lara and said, "I hope you're happy." Adam said, "I am."  

But as he admitted later, he isn't happy about any of this. Neither am I. Tony Rogers' inability to control his passions could've killed not just the object of his wrath, Adam Armstrong, but two people who'd never met him. Actually, that's not true--I met Rogers in the hall outside Adam's apartment a short time before the fire was set. We locked eyes. He knew that at least one other person was in the building, and he set the fire anyway. The Parkland RN who worked with burn patients succeeded in burning Adam, but not even close to the agonized state he'd often witnessed and helped relieve. In the end, thanks largely to a random collision, it was his own life he torched, not Adam's or that of the stranger in boxer shorts padding down the hall after his cat.


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