San Luis Obispo arson investigator John Madden had fire for crime-solving

San Luis Obispo Fire Inspector John Madden has spent more than 20 years delving into the charred remnants of fires — sifting through the ash and debris to determine the origin and cause.

In that time, his work led to 22 arson arrests — all of which resulted in convictions. Only two of those suspects offended again.

Madden, 62, retires today after more than 42 years in public safety, 20 of those years with the San Luis Obispo Fire Department and 22 with the Ventura County Fire Department.

“The knowledge going out the door with John will leave a giant hole that we are still trying to figure out how to replace,” Battalion Chief Mike Hogan said. “His depth of knowledge, trained eye and years of experience are irreplaceable.”

Madden has assisted with more than 3,000 local structure fire investigations, of which 150 were arson-caused; 350 vehicle fires, of which 150 were arson; and 250 vegetation fires, of which 125 were arson.

The fire department will not replace his position because of budget constraints, acting Chief Greg West said. Madden’s duties will fall to colleagues already in the department.

Madden leaves behind only two open arson cases: the blaze that destroyed the Cabo San Luis restaurant and severely damaged surrounding businesses in March, and the house fire at 877 Islay St. in May.

However, both cases have reached a point of investigation, he said, that leaves him confident that suspects aren’t milling around waiting to start another fire.

During his tenure, Madden investigated several significant arson fires, including the one that burned the United Methodist Church to the ground on Easter morning 2001.

An investigation into that fire, aided by the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, determined that the blaze was set intentionally.

Madden recalls even the most minute details about the case: what the old structure looked like inside after the fire, the angle of a door that had blown through the door jamb from the built-up pressure caused by smoke inside. Pulling up to the fire that morning, Madden had his own suspicions about who might have set it — an individual in town who he had been watching for a long time.

But interviews and evidence were not enough to connect the man to the blaze to make an arrest. Repeated attempts to get him to confess failed.

Madden later learned the suspect had all but confessed to a local reverend.

“But it was protected — so we lost him,” Madden said.

Other cases, such as the fire that gutted the historic Railroad Square building in 2002, had a more satisfactory ending.

Investigators were able to arrest a female transient who had started the fire by igniting a stack of magazines to stay warm while sleeping in the building’s stairwell.

Madden is known for sharing his techniques with colleagues both at the fire scene and in specialized trainings. When not investigating fires or serving as an expert witness in trials, Madden worked the prevention end of code enforcement and inspections.

He also founded the San Luis Obispo Fire Investigation Strike Team — a collaboration of fire departments around the county.

Madden served as a board member with the California Conference of Arson Investigators and helped organize noted conferences on fire investigation that were attended by colleagues from throughout the country.

Madden said he will continue helping local jurisdictions with arson and fire investigation part time and spend more time with his four grandchildren.