Florida’s only state-run fire lab stripped of national accreditation

Senior Analyst Carl Lugviel works in Florida’s fire debris lab.
Senior Analyst Carl Lugviel works in Florida’s fire debris lab.

Florida’s only state-run lab that analyzes fire evidence has been stripped of its national accreditation after a review team doubted its work in more than a dozen cases.

The lab is run by Jeff Atwater, the elected chief financial officer who is also state fire marshal. In an effort to restore the lab’s credibility, Atwater is attacking the motives of the accrediting agency and will formally fight the sanction at a hearing Wednesday.

State and local police and fire investigators rely on the Bureau of Forensic Fire and Explosives Analysis, which examines up to 4,000 samples a year as the third-largest lab in the United States studying fire residue for evidence of arson.

The lab, which has 10 full-time employees and a budget of $1.4 million, won accreditation in 2010 and again in 2015 from the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB) in Garner, N.C. But a lot went wrong in January after a review team visited the lab in Havana, near Tallahassee.

The team reported that it randomly tested 26 cases and found 14 in which the lab erroneously found the presence of gasoline, which it said “indicates concern regarding the competency of laboratory personnel.”

“There were 14 cases in which concerns for the accuracy of the reported findings are in question,” the review said.

The three-person review team, which included a forensic expert from the Pinellas-Pasco county medical examiner’s office, Reta Newman, also reported a lack of protocols, lack of quality controls, erroneous conclusions and use of methodologies “not accepted in the scientific community.”

That method is the use of distorted extracted ion profile ratios to identify presence of gasoline in fire debris.

As Florida’s elected CFO, Atwater first encountered controversy with the lab soon after voters chose him six years ago.

In a case that he inherited from his predecessor, Atwater quietly paid $247,000 in taxpayer money to settle a civil rights lawsuit filed by a North Florida man who said a botched lab investigation of a boat fire resulted in him being charged with arson and insurance fraud.

The settlement was confidential (Atwater’s office confirmed the payment) and charges against A. Stanley Freeman of Crawfordville were dropped. But the case didn’t end there.

A private investigator hired by Freeman, John Lentini of Islamorada, has relentlessly questioned the lab’s work and filed a complaint last year that foreshadowed the lab’s current problems.

“I suspect that erroneous identifications of gasoline happen on a routine basis,” Lentini wrote in a four-page complaint he filed in May 2015, a month after the lab passed an accreditation review with flying colors.

“The director and his staff want very badly to avoid a false negative,” Lentini told the Herald/Times in an interview. “A false negative means a bad guy is going to get away, but a false positive means an innocent person is going to get charged with arson.”

Lentini said it happened in a second case involving a Miami woman, Irma Castro, whose house fire he said was attributed to the same flawed conclusion of the presence of gasoline.

The lab’s longtime director, Carl Chasteen, who has 37 years of experience, answered with a 51-page report that called most of the review team’s criticism unfounded.

“We find it highly incongruous that all the previous assessments and surveillance visits failed to discern the problems that the special assessment team found by looking at essentially the same quality documents and casework,” Chasteen wrote.

Chasteen said more than half of the samples studied by the lab end with negative findings of no gasoline.

Chasteen, who doesn’t report directly to Atwater, also accused Lentini of pursuing a vendetta against the state lab.

In a recent letter to state and local police and fire departments, Atwater staunchly defended the lab’s work and said the accrediting agency’s negative report “defies logic” because it came soon after a positive one.

“While we have no idea of the motivation behind this action, we emphatically reject [the] findings, and have filed an appeal,” Atwater wrote.

Atwater criticized the agency for releasing its preliminary findings before he could respond, which he said violated accreditation procedures.

“The allegations should have been kept confidential,” Chasteen protested in a July 20 letter to ASCLD/LAB.

Pamela Bordner, the accrediting agency’s vice president for forensics, who approved the action against the lab, declined to respond to Times/Herald inquiries, but in a letter to the state she defended her agency’s actions as legally sound.

Atwater in turn hired his own expert, Armstrong Forensic Laboratory of Arlington, Texas, which spent three days at the lab and filed a report dated Aug. 15 that found “no objective evidence” to justify the loss of accreditation.

The Texas lab is accredited by ASCLD/LAB.

Atwater’s office said Dr. Andrew Armstrong would not testify at Wednesday’s hearing.

If the state loses the appeal, it could affect an unknown number of fire investigations across Florida, a top aide to Atwater acknowledged.

“Could it potentially lead to defense attorneys raising appeals? I would expect it to,” Deputy CFO Jay Etheridge said, “but it would be handled on a case-by-case basis.”

Miami Herald staff writer Julie K. Brown contributed to this report.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com. Follow @stevebousquet.

This article has been updated to correct the employer of Reta Newman. She is an employee of the District 6 Medical Examiner's office for Pinellas and Pasco counties.