This area’s state arson investigator has local roots that run deep, and started with seeds planted by family members.
Although an investigator with the Ohio Fire Marshal’s Office near Columbus, Jason Hoffman of Defiance works out of his home with a main area of responsibility in Williams, Defiance, Paulding, Van Wert, Putnam and Henry counties, although he could assist in other counties as well.
A Defiance native and 1994 graduate of Defiance High School, Hoffman’s interest in the fire service was a natural one, given that he came from a family that counted firefighters among its members.
His aunt‚ Penny, was a firefighter with South Richland Township Fire Department and married to Bob Cryer, a retired Van Wert fire chief who subsequently became a state fire marshal investigator. And his great grandfather, Eli Shoup, delivered water each day in a South Richland tanker, Hoffman explained.
This exposed him to the fire service at an early age.
“We would visit the firehouse frequently and my family regularly participated in fire department events,” recalled Hoffman, age 44. “It was a special treat to ride along with my great grandfather to deliver water throughout the county. ... I realized I wanted to be a firefighter while hanging out at South Richland as a kid and especially an arson investigator as a result of listening to my Uncle Bob telling stories about investigating fires.”
Hoffman followed his early fascination by taking a job with the Defiance Fire Department in 1999, a position he stayed in until May 2012. At the same time, he was preparing for an investigatory career, receiving two associates degrees (fire science technology in 2001 and criminal justice technology in 2007) completing peace officers basic training (in 2010) and joining the Defiance Police Department Auxiliary while completing other training and certification as well.
He also had assisted Pete Schlosser with fire investigations at the Defiance Fire Department before eventually becoming its investigator. But a further opportunity for his professional passion arrived when a vacancy opened in the state fire marshal’s office.
Hoffman applied and was successful while the transition to the job was an interesting one.
On May 5, 2012 — the day he was to say goodbye to his colleagues at the Defiance Fire Department — firefighters were called to douse three burning structures on Holgate Avenue. Two days later he began his job with the state fire marshal’s office, and helped solve the Holgate Avenue fire.
“Eventually the case was transferred to me, and several months later resulted in an arrest when me and the Defiance Police Department Detective Bureau matched DNA from another fire to a suspect and obtained a confession,” Hoffman stated.
His responsibility as an assistant state fire marshal is pretty straightforward — “determining the origin and cause of fires whether that’s assisting local agencies or completing the task independently.” But the path to becoming a fire investigator is a fairly long one as it requires a lot of knowledge, experience and training.
“Arson investigators are peace officers, but require an extensive knowledge of firefighting tactics and fire science as the job is kind of a marriage of both a police officer and firefighter,” explained Hoffman, who also served stints as a sergeant with the U.S. Army and Ohio Army National Guard. “To apply you must have education and experience in both firefighting and law enforcement ... .”
The needed knowledge is apparent when asking Hoffman to describe his work.
He mentions a variety of technical points such as conduction, convection and radiation along with V-patterns (a reference to a fire pattern), discoloration, ventilation flow, oxidation and electrical arc damage. As these terms suggest, fire investigation can be very scientific and detailed.
But it’s not just the science of fires that encompasses Hoffman’s day, as his job puts him in touch with a range of human stories and emotions. As a firefighter he saw this on a first-hand basis; as an investigator he jumps into situations in a less direct manner after the fact, but it can be no less tragic.
For example, Hoffman has investigated 582 fire and/or explosion scenes with 40 of them involving fatalities, some of them involving crimes. This means he must examine badly burned bodies, then interview family members.
“Probably the most difficult aspect is the process of interviewing family/persons who just suffered the loss of the family member in a fire,” Hoffman stated.
Other challenging aspects are the weather — as investigations often take place in the elements — and the frustration of an unresolved fire.
“When I arrive, people expect me to figure out why the fire occurred, and sometimes that is just not possible for a number of reasons,” remarked Hoffman.
Then there is participation in court proceedings. In criminal cases, this might include testifying in a trial (less frequent) or telling a grand jury about his findings.
“Fortunately, I may only testify in a trial once or twice a year as most cases (end with a plea deal) before a trial occurs,” he explained.
With the tragic situations he sees, however, comes some reward.
“The most rewarding aspect of the job is solving crimes and ensuring people who commit crimes are held accountable,” he stated. “This is especially rewarding because of the peace of mind that it gives the victims. Victims can range from private individuals, organizations or insurance companies. Everyone’s insurance rates are affected by the crime of arson, so it’s important to hold people accountable, obtain restitution and prevent future arson.”
He has some interesting stories to tell, of course, given that sifting through a fire scene could determine anything from insurance fraud to homicide. But one of the most compelling is how he avoided his own tragedy during an investigation in Grand Rapids.
“I was about to climb down a ladder into a flooded fire-damaged basement when the owner advised that I should not do that even though the fire department had disconnected the electric meter,” recalled Hoffman. “When I inquired why, he admitted that years before he had dug up the power line in the yard and connected his house to the line in front of the meter to avoid paying for electricity. We then called the power company who had to come out and dig up the yard to disconnect the power. The fire turned out to be accidental, but the owner was charged with stealing electricity.”
Before any of these stories, however, Hoffman already had lived through another experience he won’t soon forget.
While off-duty in 2010, he and neighbor Joe Brimmer helped extinguish a burning pickup occupied by former Defiance Police Chief Norm Walker that had been struck by an errant driver in a two-vehicle crash near Hoffman’s home. Hoffman was recognized with a “Good Samaritan Award” by the Safety Council of Northwest Ohio, but what followed thereafter has special meaning as well for Hoffman.
Walker had planned to attend a Detroit Tigers game the day of the crash, but his serious injuries prevented this. So, a family member later made arrangements with the Tigers to host Walker and others involved — including Hoffman’s family — to attend a game in Detroit.
That day also happened to be the seventh birthday of Hoffman’s son, Max. He describes the day as “very memorable” while the “pictures are still on our refrigerator today!”
Max is now 17 while Hoffman also has a son, Henry, age 14, and wife, Jenni. They continue to live in Defiance.