It was two days before Christmas, 1992, and all that remained of the Odenton family's home was a pile of charred rubble, the remains of a two-story wood frame house that had collapsed into the basement.

While the community rallied around the burned-out family with donations of Christmas gifts, money and shelter, Lt. C. Scott Sudduth, a county fire inspector, began following a trail of clues that led him to the unpopular conclusion that the family's father, Robert J. Groseclose, had set the fire himself.

Groseclose, a 35-year-old electrician was convicted of arson and reckless endangerment nine months later and sentenced to 18 months in jail.

Lieutenant Sudduth, a Crofton resident, was honored last week with the Maryland Arson Investigators' Association's 1993 Leo J. Sullivan Award for Distinguished Service.

"It's a kind of an art form," said state Fire Marshal Rocco J. Gabriele, who presented the award during a ceremony at the county fire headquarters in Millersville.

Fire investigators must possess the curiosity of a police investigator along with a knowledge of the chemistry and physics of fire, he said.

"On top of all that, you have to know people," Mr. Gabriele said, to successfully question witnesses, interrogate suspects, deal with attorneys and deliver expert testimony.

The Groseclose case was complicated because the burned home was bulldozed to protect a neighboring building, burying the evidence.

But beneath the ruins, Lieutenant Sudduth found clues.

The fire had started in more than one place.

Doors were locked, although the homeowner had told police they were unlocked.

Lieutenant Sudduth also found that Groseclose had been convicted of arson in Pennsylvania 12 years earlier.

Part forensic scientist, part police detective, part firefighter, Lieutenant Sudduth personifies the fire investigator's profession, his supervisors said.

"He's one of those guys that puts out a little extra effort," said his supervisor, Capt. Ronald C. Fleischmann. "It would have been very easy for him to say, 'There's too much work here -- let's call it an undetermined fire.' He didn't do that."

Captain Fleischmann said the key to Lieutenant Sudduth's success is his inquisitiveness.

He and other fire investigators "question everything," he said. "They always want to know why."

Lieutenant Sudduth graduated from the county's fire training academy with its first class in 1968 and has held jobs in the department ever since.

His wife, Vanessa, said she has never seen him more fulfilled than in his role of fire investigator.

"It's great when he makes an arrest, when he catches the bad guy," she said.

He does miss time with his family because he travels frequently, and she worries about his safety, she said.

Like police officers, fire investigators go through the county police academy.

They have the power to arrest and carry guns. They also wear bulletproof vests.

"You worry if he's going to get shot," Mrs. Sudduth said.

In nominating Lieutenant Sudduth for the Sullivan award, Division Cmdr. J. Robert Ray cited the investigator's willingness to do more than is required of him.

In addition to investigating arson cases, Lieutenant Sudduth also is the unit's statistician and is responsible for compiling monthly and yearly reports, he noted.

Commander Smith also described Lieutenant Sudduth as an "exemplary" investigator who handles more cases, makes more arrests and wins more convictions than any other officer in the unit.

Lieutenant Sudduth is quick to share some of the credit with his partner, Lt. David Bond, and other colleagues.

"I think it [the award] goes to everybody in my bureau, especially my partner," he said. "I feel it's an award for the whole unit."

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