Expert witness in murder trial says fatal fire was intentional, defense questions investigation

Testimony focused on the results of the investigation into the origin and cause of the fire, which was followed by lengthy cross-examination by the defense.

A senior deputy state fire marshal testified Friday morning that from the first day of the investigation, evidence from the fire scene did not support Robert Schech Sr.'s statements to investigators that he awoke to view fire on his wife's nightgown and side of the bed.

Schech, 70, of Hampstead, is charged with first-degree murder, first-degree arson, felony murder and malicious burning in the death of his wife, Donna Schech, in November 2016.


The state's first witness Friday morning was Senior Deputy State Fire Marshal Michael Selvage, who the court recognized as an expert in fire investigation and determination of origin and cause.

He said every fire investigation takes a systematic approach that uses the scientific method. "We don't just run in and start doing things. It's very specific," he testified.


Selvage showed a PowerPoint presentation containing images taken at the scene of the fire that occurred at 2611 Hoffman Mill Road in the early morning of Nov. 13, 2016. Images included those taken by investigators and drone video of the house from overhead.

Before the afternoon recess, Selvage detailed the search for origin and cause of the fire that was focused in the master bedroom on the first day because that was where Robert Schech testified to awakening to find Donna Schech's nightgown and her side of the bed on fire.

Images showed that the right of the residence including the carport and the dining room were almost completely consumed, while the left side of the home, near the master bedroom where Donna Schech's body was located and the home office, was more structurally sound including the roof and sections of intact siding.

In addition, the lesser degree that combustible objects on the floor of the bedroom were consumed by fire and the patterns of burning around the ceiling and walls were more consistent with a fire progressing into a room than exiting the room into the hallway, he said.


Following the lunch recess, Selvage testified that the Office of the State Fire Marshal's report determined that there were two origins of the fire in the dining room of the first floor and the bottom landing and steps of the basement. The cause was classified as incendiary, meaning deliberately ignited.

The first witnesses for the defense were then called because the witness schedule had been changed from its original order.

John Keck testified to being Robert Schech's business partner for 34 years and knowing him for about 40. He described the Schechs as "an average caring couple. He always referred to her as 'honey.' "

When asked his opinion of Schech's reputation for truth and veracity, Keck said he thought well of it.

Defense attorney Joseph Murtha then completed a lengthy cross-examination of Selvage's testimony.

Murtha said earlier testimony gave the impression that the death was being considered suspicious already on Nov. 13.

"The expression of opinion in the early stages of investigation — wouldn't that be seen as bias?" he asked.

Selvage said it may have been someone forming their own cognitive hypothesis. "I don't know if that happened or not."

Murtha also picked out instances in which Selvage testified that some of Schech's statements to investigators were taken into consideration when determining the origin and cause of the fire.

Murtha asked what the standard was for believing Schech's statements and questioned whether investigators included Schech's statements in their considerations when they fit a hypothesis and discarded them when they did not. Selvage said that was not an accurate representation.

During questioning, Selvage said that in February of this year, investigators returned to the scene at 2611 Hoffman Mill Road to gather additional data and perform due diligence.

During this time, they took control samples of the carpet in the living room from under an entertainment system. The sample appeared to be the same type of carpet that was alerted on by K-9 Kachina in the threshold between the living room and the dining room and later confirmed to contain gasoline by the Maryland State Police lab tests.

Tests were performed on the control sample to identify petroleum products. It did not test positively.

Investigators also located a gas can in the area near the front of the carport that they believed was present on the night of the fire. It was located under debris.

Murtha questioned how investigators could guarantee that degradation and spoliation of the scene had not occurred in the approximately 15 months since the conclusion of the initial investigation.

From the report, Murtha also questioned whether any known scientific method could determine how much accelerant was present in the areas it was located.

"We don't know if there was a thimbleful of gas or a glass full of gas in that location. Is that correct?" he asked.

Selvage confirmed it was.

Murtha also asked whether gasoline or gas cans themselves could have been pushed to different locations by firefighting activities like spraying hoses into the structure.

Selvage said, based on his knowledge, training and experience, that could not have happened. Based on helmet camera footage as firefighters arrived on scene, he said the gas cans themselves would have been under at least a foot of debris before firefighting activities even started.

Questioning turned to a section of his report where Selvage noted that there could have been additional points of origin for the fire, but there were at least the two noted. Murtha asked whether the bedroom could have been a point of origin.

"I didn't exclude anything," Selvage replied.

"So the bedroom could have been a point of origin?

"It certainly could have"

Trial will resume on Monday.