Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Michael Ledford: Confession Falsified by Smoke and Mirror Images

For those of you just joining in this case, allow me to bring you up to speed quickly.

One month after an apartment fire took the life of his one-year-old son and seriously burned his wife, Michael Ledford signed a document stating:
Around 8:00 P.M. we put Zach to bed then Elise went to bed at 8:30 P.M. I told Elise that I was going to put gas in the car and put my name on the EVAC sheet at the firehouse then write the check for Pied Piper then go to bed. Before I left, I lit a candle and threw it in the chair. I never wanted to hurt my family. I was tired of trying to live up to Elise's parents' standards. I now wish I had took my mom's advice and moved back to Pennsylvania. I agree I need help, and willing to get -- and willing to get help. I just hope my family and friends and God can forgive me.
Michael recanted but to no avail. At trial, two fire investigators confirmed the arson. A jury convicted Michael Ledford of first-degree murder and arson of an occupied dwelling. A judge sentenced him to 45 years for the murder and 5 years for the arson. The sentences are to be served consecutively. There is no parole or early release in Virginia.

I am convinced Michael Ledford is innocent, and I intend to prove it. 

Confession Falsified by Thermodynamics

Michael's confession cannot be true. The fire scene photos show neither candle wax residue nor candle holders. Based on Michael's written confession and his more detailed video taped confession, there should have been both.

A detailed timeline analysis coupled with the most sophisticated fire simulation available today shows  that Michael was not at or near the apartment when the fire started. The fire started between 4 and 14 minutes after his departure.

Confession Falsified by Smoke

New content follows.

The electrical service panel was located in the master bedroom, well removed from the fire in the living room. The bedroom suffered light-to-moderate smoke damage. I present the service panel and the surrounding smoke damage below. I have cropped the picture to preserve (to the extent possible) the privacy of those people I hope to help.

Below, I provide a closeup of the same service panel, this time with the panel door closed. You can see that soot has settled along the upward facing surface above the door.

There are, however, streaks of soot projecting from the bottom of the panel door and faceplate, particularly at the lower right corner. These streaks are suggestive of smoke being expelled under pressure from within the panel.

It's time to look inside.

The soot inside the panel is considerably denser than outside the panel, though the panel door was presumably closed during the fire. Even if the door had not been closed, the more intense deposition of smoke inside the panel cannot be explained by a living room fire alone.

The police and insurance investigators should have pulled the panel faceplate. They should have examined the circuit breakers. They make no report that they did. Something burned behind the faceplate. Something burned with sufficient intensity to deposit the smoke you see above, and burned with sufficient intensity to eject smoke from the lower corners of the panel door.

Though Virginia Police Agent James Watson and insurance investigator Gary Toler profess to be experts in fire investigation, and though I make no such profession, I am adamant nonetheless that they should have examined and photographed each circuit breaker in detail.

The smoke inside the electrical service panel is evidence of an electrical fire at the Ledford residence. The smoke inside the electrical service panel was not caused by a candle thrown into a chair in the living room. The smoke in the service panel disproves Michael Ledford's confession.

Confession Falsified by Mirror Images

In the picture above, notice the text "CH 7BF" impressed on the back of the panel door. Though I have been working on this case for more than five months now, only recently have I made a serious effort to determine if that text is significant. I spent many hours prowling the internet researching that text in particular and circuit breakers in general. The text was a stone I did not want to leave unturned.

As it turns out, the first two letters of the text are of great significance. Here was the big discovery.
All circuit breakers do not trip to the center position. The following circuit breakers do not have a center position, and they trip to the "off" position: Cutler Hammer, Bryant and Murray.
It hit me that the CH stands for Cutler Hammer. I confirmed this by comparing images from the fire scene with images from Amazon. The panel from the Ledford apartment is on the left. A typical Cutler Hammer residential panel from Amazon is on the right.

The models are not identical, but the similarity of design is obvious. Most obvious are the vertical lines on the door bounding a raised region, possibly added for ventilation purposes. One noticeable difference is that the Ledford panel is missing its pull handle. I don't know if that is significant.

Most circuit breaker handles move only slightly (to a "middle" position) when they pop. For those breakers, you have to look carefully to distinguish which breaker just popped and needs to be reset. To reset it, you have to move it first to the fully "off" (fully open) position and only then can you move it back to the "on" (fully closed) position.

This understanding of the Ledford breaker manufacturer and operation confirms what I had suspected. All the circuit breakers on the left hand side of the panel (plus the bottom circuit breaker on the right hand side) popped sometime during the fire. They popped from their fully "on" position to their mirror image fully "off" position.  You will see that if you will look at the picture once again. I therefore provide the picture once again. Click on the image to see it enlarged and clear.
When the switches popped, the handles moved away from the center. Because these are Cutler Hammer breakers, the handles moved a relatively long distance, all the way to the fully "off" position. In doing so, new and noticeable portions of the breakers were exposed to the smoke. The breakers that popped during the fire had the newly exposed portions sooted by the smoke. Those which were manually thrown after the fire show the white region that was protected from the smoke during the fire. Those breakers stayed on during the fire.

To understand the significance of this, you need to understand how a circuit breaker works. I quote from the same reference as above.
A temperature sensitive bimetal strip ... bends and releases the spring mechanism at a calibrated temperature. Usually, the temperature of the bimetal strip is proportional to the amount of current passing through the circuit breaker. However, the bimetal strip will react and bend to any rise in temperature. The rise in temperature may be due to a loose wire connection, misalignment of the circuit breaker contacts, or the heat from a fire. 
In other words, a circuit breaker is designed to trip when it becomes hot, usually due to excess current flowing through it. Excess current flows when there is too little resistance in the circuit protected by the breaker. When a line shorts, when two wires touch without a lamp or a heater or a microwave in between, excess current flows through the circuit. This causes the bimetal strip in the circuit breaker to heat, bend, and thereby release a spring mechanism which pops the switch. In a Cutler Hammer circuit breaker, the switch movement is unequivocal.

A circuit breaker will also pop open if the bimetal switch is heated by any means other than excess current.  If one breaker in the panel overheats but fails to pop open as designed, the heat from that switch will begin to burn the surrounding material and will begin to heat the other breakers. If the faulty breaker generates sufficient heat, smoke will be expelled from the breaker box and the other breakers will begin to pop.

That's what happened in the Ledford apartment. The evidence you see in the photos is evidence of a short in a circuit elsewhere in the Ledford apartment. It is evidence also of a circuit breaker that failed to open as it heated up.

Now what?

I'm not done. Not by a long shot. I set out to find the origin of the fire. The breaker box in the master bedroom is not the origin of the fire in the living room. The breaker box in the master bedroom is but a glaring symptom of an electrical short elsewhere in the house.

I set out to find the short, and find how that short set fire to the living room. What I learned along the way has shaken me to my core.