Probe reopened into N.Y. fire that killed 7 Canadians
Holiday shoppers died in blaze deemed arson
Police in upstate New York reopened an investigation Wednesday into a hotel fire that killed 10 people, including seven Canadians, in 1978.
The Holiday Inn in the Rochester suburb of Greece was crowded with holiday shoppers that Nov. 26, and the fire raced through the hotel in the middle of the night, leaving many unable to escape.
The fire doors were not closed, there was no sprinkler system, the alarms were not hardwired to the fire department, and they were too quiet, so a lot of people did not wake up in time, said Greece Police Chief Todd Baxter.
When Baxter became chief a year and a half ago, he looked at several of the department's cold cases, and this one piqued his interest.
He has assigned a task force to reopen the case as a full-blown new investigation and it officially began its work Wednesday.
"[There's] no smoking gun yet, if you will," Baxter said. "My biggest fear is that we had a chance for the smoking gun or we had a chance for one little piece of the puzzle to put together and we never took advantage of this."
Investigators are also going over the evidence to make sure arson could be proven in court if it comes to that, Baxter said. The speed of the spread of the fire certainly indicates arson, he said, as do some suspicious markings and the amount of heat at the lower levels.
"As we all know heat rises, but there were some things that were scorched at a temperature that would not make sense in a normal fire," he said.
There are several people who police are "dying to talk to," Baxter said — not necessarily suspects, just people whose stories in the original files are missing something.
The investigation in 1978 was disorganized and there is not enough original evidence, Baxter said. The file also languished under a corrupt police chief, who is now in jail, along with two former officers, he added.
"We have, for instance, a lack of evidence for a mass murder of 10 people," he said. "The amount of evidence we have today is nothing comparable to what we'd take today in a criminal investigation."
But Baxter hopes some piece of evidence that does exist from the original investigation can be used in a new way with technology that wasn't available 33 years ago.
"Maybe there's a piece of carpet out there, maybe there's a photograph out there that they weren't able to analyze quite like we could today," he said.