interview. But Bureau of Prisons regional officials and Jody Upton, warden of the medium-security prison in Beaumont where Severns is incarcerated, denied final approval. In a letter to the Observer, Upton wrote that an interview wasn’t possible due to “safety and security concerns.” A spokeswoman at the Beaumont facility refused to elaborate. A Bureau of Prisons spokesperson in Washington, D.C., said each facility has sole authority to turn away visitors for safety and security reasons. As a result, all comments by Severns in this story, unless otherwise noted, are taken from a brief phone interview and from At the time of the fire, the Severns weren’t struggling financially. Sue had more than $100,000 in savings. They were paying their home mortgage and the gun-store note on time, according to court records. Curtis had spent the spring and summer building the store’s inventory ahead of the fall hunting season, always prime time for gun sellers, and for the expected end of the assault weapons ban in September. They were hoping for a profitable fall. On Aug. 21, Curtis Severns arrived at Lone Star Guns around noon. It wasn’t unusual for him to work weekends. The store closed at 6 p.m. He told the other employees he would lock up. This wasn’t out of the ordinary, either; Severns’ employees would later testify that he frequently worked late hours. On this night, he went through the week’s receipts and prepared to sell items at a shooting competition the next day. At about 10:30 p.m., he locked the store, set the alarm, and set off for home. In the summer, he later testified, he used desk fans to cool the shop when he was there alone, instead of air conditioning, to save money. When he left that night, he later testified, he had forgotten to turn off one of the fans. Twenty-three minutes later, the smoke alarm sounded. The short time between his departure and the fire alarm would later cast suspicion on Severns. He was the last person inside the building that night. If it was arson, there’s no question who did it. But it’s entirely possible that an accidental blaze started during those 23 minutes. As Lentini, the Florida fire expert, puts it, “His problem was he left the thing too soon before the fire was detected. So they said, ‘Oh, he must have set it:” THE FIRE The fire itself was relatively minor. Flames engulfed two gunsmith workbenches and an area of bookcases in the back room of Lone Star Guns, churning through the many flammable materials in the shop. Heat and smoke drifted up through the roof, and eventually the ceiling collapsed. The flames were out roughly 30 minutes after firefighters arrived. The store’s workroom sustained serious damage in a 12-by-12-foot area, but the front of the store, the customer area, was mostly untouched. Water from the fire hoses ruined all the guns in the place, but the structure remained mostly intact. A few neighboring businesses suffered smoke damage. No one was injured. The people most affected, of HIGHTOWER The Public In Public Safety The report came from the official inspector in March 2008, and its conclusion was unequivocal: “The overall food safety level of this facility,” he wrote, “was considered to be: SUPERIOR.” The facility was the Peanut Corp. of America’s processing plant in Georgia. That’s the one that shipped salmonellacontaminated products all across America last yearkilling nine people and sickening more than 22,000. How could the inspector have been so disastrously wrong about a plant that was alive with deadly salmonella? Well, the inspection system itself is grossly flawed. In this case, corporate officials were notified that the inspector would be coming. He was allowed only one day to check a plant that handles millions of pounds of peanuts a month. This inspector’s expertise was in fresh produce, not goobershe didn’t even know that salmonella could thrive in peanuts. Besides, he was not required to test for salmonella. Sheesh! Is this the best we can expect from our government’s food safety system? Uh … well, that’s another problem. The inspector doesn’t work for the public. He works for a private food-safety audit firm. He gets his inspection gigs by soliciting food processors directly, and the processors pay his salary. Cozy, no? This is no isolated case. More than 200 companies provide safety audits for processors of everything from meat to veggies. Because Washington has carelessly pushed privatization policies and slashed federal inspection budgets, these for-profit companies now perform the bulk of America’s food-safety inspectionsessentially letting the processors buy a phony seal of approval. Come on Congress, come on Obamalet’s put the “public” back in public safety. Pronto. course, were the Severns, who had seen their hard work and inventory destroyed. The next day, investigators picked through the smoldering remnants of the gun shop’s back room with shovels and flashlights. Before the ATF investigators even showed up, firemen and store employees had moved items around and begun to clean up. “Part of the problem was that the scene wasn’t very well preserved:’ says John DeHaan, a former ATF investigator who was the prosecution’s star witness in the Severns trial. DeHaan wasn’t at the scene, but like Hurst and Lentini, based his testimony on arson reports and photos from the store, which is common practice. “The cause-and-origin person from the ATF didn’t get there until after the scene had been disturbed. So we had limited quality of information.” Special Agent Steve Steele was the ATF’s lead investigator on the case. After a quick pass through the scenehe spent 15 to 20 minutes conducting his examinationSteele concurred with local investigators’ assessment: There were three main areas of burning. There was no obvious burn pattern across the floor connecting these areas. It looked like multiple origins, APRIL 3, 2009 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11
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