Year in Photos

Heavy smoke from the Cole Creek Fire rises along Metro Road on Oct. 11, 2015, near Evansville.

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune

An investigation uncovered a missing segment of Cole Creek Fire video evidence but also determined that none of the video had been altered, the city announced Friday.

A forensic examiner with a Colorado company hired to analyze the recordings found that one video segment of the 2015 blaze had not been released to the public or the state fire marshal’s office, which investigated the fire. But the recently discovered video evidence did not offer new insight into the blaze.

The city announced in November that it would investigate whether anybody tampered with video evidence of the Cole Creek Fire after the Star-Tribune discovered an email from Fire Chief Kenneth King asking a fire inspector to delete the “bad parts” of the video. Previously, the city hadn’t done anything to verify evidence wasn’t missing besides talking to King.

“Could you cut out the bad parts, and make sure that no copies are made and only DCI views?” King wrote in an Oct. 14, 2015, email to Devin Garvin, the fire inspector in charge of gathering evidence from the fire. The email was sent while the fire, which escaped from the city landfill and destroyed 14 homes in rural Evansville, was still burning.

King has maintained that the email was meant as a joke. He apologized for the email in October hours before announcing his retirement, which will begin in January. A month later, the city announced it would conduct a formal investigation into whether someone tampered with the video evidence.

The city released the results of the investigation in a statement Friday. Michael Szewczyk, the city’s information technologies manager, compiled the video and audio evidence from the fire and then sent the evidence to Image and Sound Forensics, a Colorado company the city paid $2,500 to analyze the video.

A forensic examiner at the company received multiple video segments from the city but found that one of nine video segments was not included in the original videos released to the public and the fire marshal’s office.

“It’s my understanding that the fire marshal’s received the exact same thing that I sent to the forensic examiner,” Szewcyk said. Both Szewcyk and city manager V.H. McDonald said they didn’t know why the video wasn’t included.

Szewczyk then found the missing video segment and sent it to the company about a month after the other videos were sent.

The 12-minute segment that was previously not released shows part of the fire burning from the dashboard camera of a Casper Fire-EMS truck, parked about 100 yards from a smoking field. Firefighters can be heard discussing where firetrucks should be deployed. Two firefighters and a firetruck then approach the burning field but soon aren’t visible in the heavy smoke.

The examiner then compared the video released to the public with the original video and found “no inconsistencies or unexplained anomalies” and that the released recordings were consistent with the originals, according to the report he submitted to the city. The examiner wrote that “no indications were found that would indicate editing, deletions or alterations” of the visual or audio components of the videos.

McDonald said he considered the investigation’s findings the final answer as to whether evidence was altered.

“We reviewed it and the guy from Colorado found it intact,” he said Friday.

Before deciding to launch the investigation in November, the city hadn’t taken steps to verify that the video hadn’t been edited besides talking with King.

McDonald hadn’t seen the video and didn’t know where it was when the investigation began, he previously told the Star-Tribune. McDonald became city manager a few weeks after the fire ignited in the city’s landfill.

A week and a half after announcing the investigation, McDonald asked King to compile information regarding how the video evidence was handled in the days after the fire. King responded with an email outlining the chain of custody of the the video.

The information King compiled was never used by the investigators, McDonald said Friday, but was used for the city manager’s own information.

The city is now focusing on how to handle claims from the people whose property was damaged or destroyed in the five-day fire, McDonald said. Those residents have until October to file their claims, though state law caps the total the city would have to to pay out at $500,000 for all claimants.

Follow crime and courts reporter Elise Schmelzer on Twitter @eliseschmelzer

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Features Editor

Elise Schmelzer joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 after graduating from the University of Missouri and interning at newspapers around the country. As features editor, she oversees arts and culture coverage and reports stories on a broad variety of topics.

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