Defense expert witness Craig Beyler testified Friday, May 9, offering an alternate interpretation of the fire’s origin and cause.
An expert witness for the defense disputed the Office of the State Fire Marshal's determined origin and cause of a deadly fire on Day 8 of the murder trial of Robert Schech Sr.
Schech, 70, of Hampstead, is charged with first-degree murder, first-degree arson, felony murder and first-degree malicious burning in the death of his wife, Donna Schech, in November 2016.
Craig Beyler, who was recognized by the court as an expert in the fields of fire protection engineering, fire science and fire investigation, reviewed the data of the case at the request of Robert Schech Jr.
Beyler testified that, in his opinion, the origin of the fire was in the first floor bedroom of the home, as Schech Sr. had previously testified, and that the cause was accidental, either through discarded smoking materials igniting bedding or electrical causes.
Beyler serves as the chair of The Organization of Scientific Area Committees for Forensic Science Fire & Explosion Investigation Subcommittee and technical director emeritus of Jensen Hughes.
The state objected to Beyler being named as an expert in the field of fire investigation because he is not certified as a fire investigator from a nationally recognized organization and had not recently served hands-on as the primary investigator for origin and cause in a fire.
Judge Thomas Stanfield overruled the objection, likening it to a case where a medical expert could be received who had not recently performed hands-on surgery.
Beyler used data collected in the course of the investigation including reports from the Carroll County Sheriff's Office, the OSFM, and medical records to review the fire investigation and evaluate "whether its findings were well-founded or not," he said. He also visited the scene.
He testified that he did not believe the OSFM's investigation had adequately considered the effects of firefighting efforts in their investigation.
"The nature of firefighting [actions] is important to understand. … It will affect what you actually see as far as patterns and damage later," he said.
His testimony focused on three hypotheses for where the fire could have started — the bedroom, as stated by Schech, and the basement stairs and dining room, as reported by the OSFM. He walked the court through his own fire dynamics analysis.
Beyler said he believes the fire spread from the bedroom's open door into the hallway of the home and made its way across the house, eventually to the carport.
He compared damage in the bedroom to damage in the living room, two areas, he said, that contained a similar amount of items likely to act as fire fuel. He said the damage in the bedroom was heavier to areas like the studs of the walls and heavy wooden pieces of furniture.
It was "impossible" for the basement steps and landing to have been an origin point for the fire, he testified, because the basement was not consumed by fire. A fire could not have been started at the bottom landing of the stairs without spreading around the wood-paneled room, he said. The char pattern on the steps was more consistent with the fire spreading down because there was less fire damage on the lower steps than those above.
He said he believed there was extensive damage in the dining room of the first floor, not because it was a point of origin of the fire, but because it was closer to the back of the house and firefighting efforts were on the front and right side of the house. If it had originated there, there would have been greater damage in the living room, where it would have spread first, than the bedroom, he said.
The presence of gasoline identified on the basement steps and a piece of carpet collected from the threshold between the dining and living rooms, he said, could be attributed to firefighting efforts.
When high velocity water was sprayed through a hose into the carport, gasoline, which is lighter than water, could float and be moved into the house and deposited. He said the dining room and basement steps both were located in the expected path of flow of water sprayed to control fire in the carport.
He also criticized the conclusion by investigators that Donna Schech was not wearing a nightgown at the time of the fire. He cited a study that tested the burn time of different clothing items on mannequins. A nightgown was fully consumed in 145 seconds and a sundress in 95 seconds. He said it was "plausible and likely" that Donna Schech's nightgown would be entirely consumed by fire before she became unconscious and fell to the floor. He also noted that she could have removed the garment.
During cross-examination, Senior Assistant State's Attorney Melissa Hockensmith questioned whether Beyler had adequately considered intentional ignition of gasoline as a plausible cause of the fire, especially in his dismissal of the dining room as a point of origin.
With his analysis of the fire dynamics near the basement steps, she also questioned whether the study Beyler cited had taken into account an accelerant like gasoline or a sloped surface like steps. He said it had not.
She also cited one study that found that a cigarette left in bedclothes ignited a fire less than 2 percent of the time.
Hockensmith noted that in Beyler's report he criticized investigators for not elaborating more on what they called inconsistencies in Schech's testimony.
"People's observations under these circumstances are limited," Beyler said, noting that adrenaline is cycling in the body and the person's perception of the passage of time is affected.
Hockensmith later asked which witness statements he had considered when making his hypotheses. Beyler said he had not interviewed Schech prior to the trial, but had interviewed his children and had viewed footage of his interview with law enforcement and read reports. He replied that he had "reviewed them all and come up with a composite that made sense to me."
She cited one witness account where Schech had described awakening to find his wife on fire in the bed next to him and another where Schech had described coming into the room to view his wife on fire.
Beyler said the situations were not different materially and would not affect the outcome of the fire investigation.
Hockensmith asked whether it was strange that an able-bodied lady who had been working at a restaurant days before had not made it out of the room, yet a man who spends most of his life watching TV and has COPD made it out of the room. Beyler said he did not have the expertise to evaluate that.