Captain William M. "Willie" Nelson of the Phoenix Fire Department was named IAAI's 2012 Fire Investigator of the Year for his work solving a cold case arson fire that killed a Phoenix, AZ firefighter. The Investigator of the Year Award is given annually to an individual who has shown outstanding achievement through the use of professional expertise in both the criminal and civil fields of arson control.
On March 14, 2001, the Phoenix Fire Department responded to a five alarm fire at a supermarket. During suppression, the fire grew out of control and Firefighter Bret Tarver, an eight-year veteran, was trapped with three other firefighters. The three were rescued, but FF Tarver ran out of air and did not survive.
The investigation at the time found that an incendiary fire was started outside the building in a dumpster. However, evidence and statements from witnesses were spotty and, subsequently, little information about a suspect was developed despite endless hours of investigative work. The case remained unsolved and went cold.
In August 2007, Capt. Willie Nelson re-opened the case. He reviewed every page of the investigative file and followed up with each witness. As a result of his work, Capt. Nelson developed a suspect, Christopher Benitez, who was 17 at the time of the fire. Capt. Nelson's interviews elicited statements from friends and family that Benitez had bragged about starting the fire. Capt. Nelson found out that Benitez had been caught stealing beer from the supermarket three days before the fire and theorized that he had set the blaze as retaliation for the arrest. Benitez had watched the fire from his rooftop, repeating over and over, "Let it burn."
Capt. Nelson located the suspect, who had subsequently joined the Army, in detention at Ft. Hood for other offenses. Capt. Nelson interviewed the suspect, who admitted to being at the scene and remembered details about the incident, but denied setting the fire. Based on the evidence he had developed, Capt. Nelson submitted the case for prosecution. On April 25, 2011, more than a decade after the fire, Benitez was convicted on the charges of Arson of an Occupied Structure, Arson of Property, and Negligent Homicide. He was sentenced to seven years in prison. Were it not for Capt. Nelson's tenacity, determination, and superior investigative work, this cold case might never have been solved.