For the second time this week and the eighth time this year, police in the Rochester region discovered a body that had been set on fire — and all of the crimes remain unsolved.
Officials from various police agencies have said they have found no evidence to suggest the cases are linked, but the number of cases itself is unusual:
- On Wednesday morning, Rochester police were investigating a body found in a west side park which appeared to have been set on fire.
- A day earlier, New York State Police said passers-by spotted a burning body on the side of Lacey Road in Caledonia, Livingston County.
- Livingston County deputies found a body in a burning vehicle on state-owned land near Union Corners Road in West Sparta in May.
- Macedon Center firefighters found a body in a burning car on an access road near the Erie Canal in February.
- Rochester firefighters in January discovered the bodies of four individuals on the third floor of a Leighton Avenue home.
None of the eight burned body cases this year have resulted in an arrest. One case, the death in West Sparta, was later ruled accidental, according to Livingston County Sheriff Thomas Dougherty.
On Wednesday, the gruesome discovery brought Rochester police and city firefighters to a wooded area near some basketball courts inside La Grange Park.
Rochester Police Investigator Frank Camp said a passer-by found a human body that “appeared to have been on fire” about 6:20 a.m. Wednesday at the park.
Camp said authorities determined that the person was dead, but details about the individual’s gender, age or identity were not immediately available.
“We are in the beginning stages of our investigation,” Camp said. “This will be a slow and methodical process, so we ask for some patience here.”
State police, who were also called to the Rochester scene, said a passer-by spotted a burning body Monday night on the side of Lacey Road in Caledonia, Livingston County.
As of late Wednesday afternoon, police had released no more details about either discovery.
Similarly, other cases remain mysteries.
Rochester police have not announced a cause of death for the Leighton Avenue victims, but their names were included on a list of shooting victims that police later provided to the Democrat and Chronicle.
Several earlier burned body cases remain unsolved, as well. Rochester police have not made an arrest in the 2011 death of 72-year-old Louis Dash, whose badly burned body was found in the trunk of his car in Genesee Valley Park.
The October 2010 homicide of a Rochester woman, Amelia Rivera-Castoire, who was found burned in rural Ontario County, remains unsolved, Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero said Wednesday morning.
The burning body of Rivera-Castoire, 33, was found in a ditch along Pierpont Road. Police were not sure how she died or how long she was in the ditch before she was spotted. She was last seen in Rochester, about five hours before her body was found. She was eight months pregnant.
“It’s an active, ongoing investigation,” said Povero, declining to provide details.
Asked about the two recent instances of burned bodies being discovered, he said there was nothing in hand “at this moment” to establish a connection to other cases.
Forensic experts say that arson as a means of concealing a crime is neither common nor particularly effective. Some criminals mistakenly believe that a fire will reduce a body to ash. While these types of fires may leave a body charred on the outside, they typically don’t get hot enough or burn long enough to cause more than superficial damage.
Dr. Mary Jumbelic, a forensic pathologist who served as Onondaga County’s chief medical examiner from 1998 until 2009, said that even when a person’s body is badly burned on the outside, evidence within the body can remain intact. Tissue samples and blood tests can help a medical examiner determine the cause of death, and dental records or medical devices — such as an artificial knee — will remain to aid in identification.
Dental records often provide a route to identification.
“The teeth really are there unless it was over 1,600 degrees for over 45 minutes,” said local dentist Dr. Neil Goldstein, who previously provided forensics work for the Monroe County Medical Examiner’s Office. “… The molars usually are in pretty good shape.”
Using a dental comparison, Goldstein once confirmed the identity of a man whose body was badly burned in the crash-landing of a small plane.
First, however, investigators will need to determine just who the burned individuals could be, whether from missing person records or clues found with the bodies.
“Unless they have an inkling of who the person was before the fire, it gets very, very difficult,” Goldstein said.
If police have a clue who the victim is, then DNA provides another identification tool, said Dr. Elayne Pope, a Virginia-based forensics anthropologist who specializes in the analysis of burned human remains.
“You can compare that to any family member,” she said.
Typically, the victims are identified, Pope said.
“Usually with good police work they come up with an identification,” she said.
Local arson-murder cases
There have been a handful cases in the Rochester area of fires being set to conceal homicides before this year. This list does not include homicide by arson, which is considered a different category of arson:
July 8, 2014
Winnie Butler’s body was found inside her daughter’s apartment at 294 Fernwood Ave. after a fire there was put out. Butler’s grandson Donkish Lesane, 22, was accused of killing her and then setting a fire to conceal the crime. Butler, 52, was babysitting four of her grandchildren at the time. Lesane left the house with the kids, his cousins, who were all 5 or younger. Lesane was sentenced in June to 25 years to life in state prison.
Dec. 24, 2012
Human remains later identified as Cheryl Spengler, 67, were found by police inside 191 Lake Road in the town of Webster. Police say her brother, William Spengler, shot her before setting fire to the house and ambushing firefighters who responded. Spengler shot and killed two West Webster firefighters and injured two others before killing himself. Six other houses were destroyed.
Nov. 17, 2011
Rochester police and firefighters were called to Genesee Valley Park, near Moore Drive and under the Interstate 390 overpass, to battle a car fire. After extinguishing the blaze, firefighters found Louis Dash’s badly burned body in the trunk. Officers said the 72-year-old man was dead before the car fire started.
Oct. 23, 2010
The burning body of Amelia Rivera-Castoire, 33, of Rochester, was found in a ditch along Pierpont Road in Ontario County. Police were not sure how she died or how long she was in the ditch before she was spotted. She was last seen in Rochester, about five hours before her body was found. She was eight months pregnant.
Sept. 13, 2008
Police say Rose Kinsella was killed by her husband, James Kinsella, sometime over the weekend of Sept. 13, 2008. On Monday, Sept. 15, James Kinsella doused their home with gasoline and started a fire with a lighter. Shortly after that he shot himself in the head in a front room of the house. Gasoline vapors fed an explosion strong enough to blow the front wall out.
April 20, 2007
Katharina Lawn, 54, was found inside the burning Merchants Road apartment where she’d lived for 12 years. She had been violently beaten and strangled. Her former neighbor, Darrell Boyd, was convicted of killing her as revenge for her having reported a domestic violence incident that sent him to state prison. Boyd was convicted of second-degree murder in 2007 and sentenced to 25 years to life in state prison.
Aug. 1, 2002
Firefighters found the bodies of Clara Sconiers, 46, and Thomas Reed, 50, inside a burning house on First Street. Both had been beaten to death. A jury convicted Teddy Pierre of the crime in 2003, but he was acquitted after a 2014 retrial. Another man — Darrell Boyd — allegedly told two people that he had committed the crime. Boyd was convicted of a similar homicide in 2007.