The leads had dwindled and houses and buildings in Mission Hill and around the city were burning down nearly every night in the early 1980s.
ATF agents like Wayne Miller were working the case hard, but getting nowhere. Then they interviewed a Boston Police officer named Robert Groblewsky, who had been on their list of suspicious characters, and that led to a breakthrough.
The story of that amazing investigation and the people behind it is the focus of a book by Miller called, ‘Burn Boston Burn: The Largest Arson Case in the History of the Country.’ It’s a book that Miller has been publicizing at libraries all over Boston and on news programs like ‘Chronicle.’ It’s a sordid history with a conspiracy that, in today’s Boston, is hard to believe.
Altogether, between 1982 and 1984, a group of nine men conspired to burn down 264 vacant homes or buildings and caused more than $25 million in damages – while injuring more than 200 Boston firefighters during the reign of flames. It was, retired ATF Agent Wayne Miller said, the largest arson case in the history of the United States.
Federal Judge Rya Zobel called the crew “urban terrorists” at their sentencing, and they are believed to have set more than 20 fires in Mission Hill – one of the hardest hit neighborhoods along with Dorchester.
“Simply put, they decided they needed to start setting fires in order to get responses from the residents, press and leaders of the City of Boston – in order to get their firefighter friends back on the job,” said Miller. “Mayor Kevin White had laid off around 600 Boston firefighters, losing their jobs in response to the new Proposition 2 ½…There were several fires set in Mission Hill during those two years. This group was so brazen and they operated under the cover of darkness using what looked like official police cruisers. They even had a vanity plate on the car that said ‘Arson.’ Every Boston Police officer that would see them thought they were part of an Arson Squad. They operated in the residential areas of Roxbury, Dorchester, Southie and Charlestown in the middle of the night. Anyone who saw them thought they were operating in the area as investigators or public officials. They actually set up to seven fires in one night. They set more fires in a night that the Fire Department presently has in seven months’ time.”
The motive for the fires was very odd, Miller said. Very few of the perpetrators were affected by the layoffs, but all of them were fire buffs and hung around firehouses and firefighters. In the end, Miller said, it was a twisted kind of assistance they thought they were providing to their firefighter friends.
“None of these guys were laid off themselves,” he said. “They were doing it in a twisted Robin Hood type of venture. They thought if they burned enough buildings, then their friends would be re-hired. It was crazy. When I sign my book, I write ‘Enjoy this crazy story.’ Even after 35 years, it’s hard to fathom how so many guys could join a conspiracy that lasted so long, destroyed so many buildings and hurt so many firefighters.”
Miller came to Boston after growing up in Rhode Island to become an agent in the ATF. After working gun cases for a while, he moved over to the Arson Unit. That coincided with a Task Force formed in Boston to address fires. Coincidentally, the fire conspiracy started soon after. When the leads went cold and fires kept coming, Miller said there was tremendous pressure on them. The fires made national news, Congress had discussed it and there was major pressure in Washington, D.C., on the agents in Boston to solve and end the craziness.
Two years into the spree, Miller began to get small tips from Boston Housing Authority Police Officer Gregg Bemis – who was involved in the fire ring. Then, on Nov. 21, 1982, a break came when one of those tips lined up with a video taken at a Hyde Park lumber yard fire by WBZ Cameraman Nat Whittemore. That video caught Boston Police Officer Groblewsky at the scene seemingly cheering for the fire to burn bigger. It was odd, and it matched up with one of the tips implicating Groblewsky in stealing a look-alike police cruiser in Natick.
However, when they went to interview the officer, they found a stolen fire box on his living room floor, and he eventually just confessed – surprising everyone.
“In the very first interview, he rattled of 29 fires,” Miller said. “I couldn’t believe this Boston cop was implicating other public people. He said the conspiracy was more than 100 fires. He didn’t realize it was actually more than 200 at that point.”
The break led to a break-up of the entire organization. There were two trials, one of Ray Norton who got 4-6 years for knowing of the conspiracy, and the other of Don Stackpole, who got 40 years and served 22.
The other seven pleaded guilty and got anything from probation to more than 20 years in prison.
Miller said it was a crazy time, but he firmly believes it could never happen again.
“The same type of crime could never happen today,” he said. “First of all, there are not that many vacant buildings anymore in Boston because real estate prices are so high. Also, back then we had no cell phones, no GPS or surveillance cameras all over. Plus, fire investigation has come a long way since then and is more sophisticated. With all those things in place now, there’s no way this could happen again.”