Expert says fatal Wasilla fire was not arson

Posted: Wednesday, May 15, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Arson did not cause a fire that killed 14-year-old Samuel Welton two years ago in his family's Wasilla duplex, a fire expert testified Tuesday.

The boy's mother, Suzette Welton, 38, is accused of causing his death and is on trial in Palmer Superior Court for murder, arson and attempted murder.

Vytenis Babrauskas, a fire scientist from Washington state, gave key testimony for the defense that disputes the prosecution's version of events. He attributed a line of burned holes in the floor of an upstairs hallway to flashover, which occurs when a fire gets so hot an entire room ignites. He said flammable carpet caused the fire to flare up within minutes.

Samuel and his older brother, Jeremiah, were asleep upstairs when the blaze began.

State fire investigators have testified that someone poured gasoline or another flammable liquid outside the boys' bedrooms and lighted it. Firefighters also smelled gas inside the house that night, state witnesses have said.

Prosecutors contend that Welton set the fire in hopes of collecting on $100,000 life insurance policies she had taken out months before on each of her two sons. Jeremiah, then 16, escaped the blaze.

Babrauskas did not say how he thought the fire started. His testimony focused on how the fire burned.

The apartment's ventilation system created a trail of burn holes in the floor outside the boys' bedrooms, he said. Also, state investigators ignored flashover as a possible cause of burn patterns, he said.

He testified it would be difficult for anyone to set a flammable liquid on fire without injuring himself. Such liquids flare up when lighted, Babrauskas said. If gas was used to set the fire, an explosion would have blown out the house's windows, he said.

Questioned by district attorney Roman Kalytiak however, Babrauskas said a flammable liquid could have created the same patterns in the floor.

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