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Experts say fire intentional
Testimony continues in 2009 arson case
Fire Investigation 3 es
Investigators move debris during an arson inspection at the home of Pam Graf in 2009. - photo by File photo

Two experts in fire investigation have both testified that the Jan. 18, 2009, blaze that destroyed a Lanier Drive home was no accident.

“It’s my opinion that the fire was incendiary, or an intentionally set fire,” said Keith Bell, a consultant hired by an insurance company to determine the cause and origin of the blaze.

Steve Anderson, the Forsyth County Fire Department’s lead investigator on the case, shared that opinion.

“We were dealing with an incendiary fire,” he said.

Both men’s testimony came Tuesday as the trial of 48-year-old Pamela Morrow Graf continued in Forsyth County Superior Court.

Bell and a third prosecution witness also said that gasoline had been found in debris collected from the house.

Graf is charged with arson, as well as one count each of possession of cocaine and less than one ounce of marijuana.

Her former boyfriend, 47-year-old Steven Edward Strobel of Winder, was convicted of first-degree arson last week in the same fire and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Graf has maintained that she and Strobel had gone to Washington, D.C., that weekend for the presidential inauguration and were not at her house when the blaze occurred.

She has also said a racial slur and phrase spray-painted along a fence on her property was the result of her support of Barack Obama.
Graf’s trial began Monday and is expected to continue today.

Bell testified Tuesday that it was difficult to get information from Graf when he spoke to her a few days after the fire.

“She’d be on the phone, she’d walk away,” he said. “She couldn’t remember things.”

Bell said Graf couldn’t recall where certain walls were in the house.

She said she intended on boarding all of her cats before she departed, but couldn’t find one of them and left the garage door cracked about six inches.

She also told him there were two gas cans in the garage, though authorities found four, none of which were where she had said.

He also testifed said Graf told him a plate covering an electrical outlet “sat awkward against the wall” and she had not had any electrical or natural gas problems before the fire.

He said she told him she wasn’t smoking inside and there was no spray paint in the house.

“She was very, very adamant that someone tried to blow up her house ... because she was an Obama supporter,” Bell said.

Anderson said Graf told him the same thing.

“Her theory was that her house was burned because she was an Obama supporter and she had had a sign in her yard,” Anderson said.

He said she later told him she thought her next door neighbor had set the fire, but had no evidence to support her theory.

“She did call her neighbor a racist,” Anderson said.

He said Graf was unsure of when she left her house and when she left for Washington.

He also testified that Graf told him the past year had been the “worst year of her life” and that she “had had a lot of dealings” with authorities and the Division of Family and Children Services.

Bell said carpet found in the basement reeked of gasoline, as did other debris.

“It’s the same smell you would get if you were at the gas station and got it on your hand,” he said.

Bell said he thought the fire started in the northeast corner of the main floor of the one-story home, which had a basement, and spread from there.

Anderson concurred.

Graf’s attorney, Parker McFarland, questioned Bell about the examination reports he and the electrical engineer filed.

Bell said the engineer’s report does not say whether he checked Graf’s water heater or furnace unit. Furthermore, he did not consult a consumer product recall list to see if any of the items were dangerous.

Bell explained checking the list wasn’t necessary because of the way the engineer examined the items.

Bell said he did not assign anyone to the scene, to make sure evidence was not tampered with, but did cover it with a tarp.

He also said he didn’t find a distinct pour pattern, which would indicate where gasoline was spilled if it caught fire.

Other witnesses included Kathrine Whittle, who is in retail sales and custodian of records for AT&T, and Doug Byron, the forensic chemist who tested samples of debris taken from the house. Byron appeared in a video previously recorded because he was unable to attend the trial in person.