Life in Legal Purgatory
By Katie Vloet
When Victor Caminata attends his son's football practices, he
keeps to himself, avoiding interaction with the other parents. Still,
he loves to be there, to watch his 9-year-old son learn to navigate
the gridiron and develop a camaraderie with other boys his age.
Caminata, after more than five years in prison, is happy to be
free to spend time with his kids, but the specter of incarceration
weighs heavily on him—especially as he awaits a retrial for a crime
he says he didn't commit and the experts with the Michigan Innocence
Clinic say wasn't even a crime.
"I don't like to be around crowds now," says Caminata, 39. "Prison—it's
just a terrible place. Nobody should have to see the things I've
seen. I grew up in the country, and I'm a family man. But after
being in prison, it's a long road to get back to the way things
used to be."
Caminata was sent to prison in 2008 after the house he shared
with his then-girlfriend was severely damaged in a fire. After investigators
initially said the fire was accidental and had begun in the chimney
that connected to a wood stove, police received an anonymous tip
that led the investigators to re-examine the wreckage. They then
said they found signs that the fire had been set intentionally,
and Caminata was their only suspect.
Faculty, staff attorneys, and student attorneys from the Michigan
Innocence Clinic worked on the case for more than two years. The
Clinic's fire investigation experts said the investigation into
the fire was "unscientific," "erroneous," and resulted in "unreliable
and illogical conclusions."
In July, at the beginning of what was scheduled to be three days
of evidentiary hearings, the prosecution announced that its experts
no longer stood by the arson determination that had sent Caminata
to prison to serve nine to 40 years. The judge vacated the conviction
and ordered Caminata released on a personal recognizance bond. Yet
the prosecution announced later in the summer that it would try
So, as he waits for a new trial date, Caminata is in legal purgatory,
out of prison but awaiting retrial—straddling the worlds of freedom
At 6:30 a.m. on March 2, 2008, Caminata loaded wood in the basement
woodstove at the home where he and his kids lived with his girlfriend
and her kids. He loaded it again at 9 or 10 a.m. on the cold, snowy,
late-winter day in Boon, Michigan, near Cadillac in the northwestern
part of the state.
Late in the morning, Caminata was sitting in the recliner, until
he was awakened by the smell and sight of smoke coming out of the
living room wall. He told his girlfriend's 13-year-old son to get
the pets and the other kids out of the house. The boy came back
inside, where he found Caminata in the basement, spraying the woodstove
with a fire extinguisher. Caminata also climbed up onto the roof
in order to put a "chem stick" down the chimney to try to extinguish
or slow the progress of the fire. Caminata, who happened to be a
volunteer firefighter, helped unroll the hoses when the fire truck
The insurance investigator determined it was a chimney fire,
which occurs when creosote lodged in the chimney pipe combusts.
The investigator concluded the fire escaped the chimney through
an open mortar joint and small "thimble" hole. A few days after
the initial investigation, however, an anonymous tip came in to
police that said Caminata had discussed how to burn a house down
without getting caught and that he would know how to make a fire
look accidental. (The conversation was never substantiated, and
the tip was not discussed at trial.) Caminata's girlfriend also
said during the course of the investigation that she "had a feeling"
he may be at fault, because they'd had a fight the night before
the fire during which she'd asked him to move out (Caminata said
there was no such fight).
Investigators from the insurance company and from state police
later claimed that char marks and "unconnected" areas of burning
pointed to arson. They said no puffed or expanded creosote—a telltale
sign of a chimney fire—was found in the chimney. They theorized
that Caminata used a torch or fire stick to start the fire just
outside of the chimney itself. And they said the fire could not
have originated in the chimney and escaped through the thimble hole
in the chimney because the wood they believed had been near the
hole was intact and not consumed by fire.
After consulting with new experts who reinvestigated the fire,
the Innocence Clinic filed its motion for a new trial in early 2012.
In the motion, the Clinic maintained that the state's fire experts
had committed fundamental errors in violation of National Fire Protection
Association (NFPA) 921, which sets the bar for scientific-based
investigation and analysis of fire and explosion incidents, and
that the state's experts did not have adequate training to be considered
experts in the trial. The Clinic's attorneys and experts also said
that the supposed signs of arson were spurious, and that the original
determination that an accidental chimney fire had burned the house
was, in fact, correct.
"There were many very big problems with this investigation: They
never identified the point of origin, their own photos show that
the other side of the beam had burned—destroying their theory about
a blowtorch or other fire-starter, and the worst problem, that they
never looked in the chimney with a camera to search for puffed creosote,"
says David Moran, '91, clinical professor at Michigan Law and director
of the Michigan Innocence Clinic. "That's the single most surprising
thing: They never actually looked into the chimney, which is the
most basic step a fire investigator is required to take before deciding
whether a fire potentially involving a chimney is or is not a chimney
Joseph Filas, a certified fire and explosion investigator and
one of the Innocence Clinic's experts, found many defects in the
structural integrity of the chimney and surrounding areas, in particular
that the thimble hole had been improperly sealed so hot gases from
the chimney could escape and ignite the wood framing of the house
Filas said his review of the evidence showed that, contrary to
the state investigators' conclusion, the first material that ignited
outside of the chimney was a wood board in direct contact with the
thimble hole. Filas concluded the fire spread because hot gases
leaked out of the chimney at the thimble hole. He also concluded
that the state's investigators had improperly reconstructed the
position of the wood boards covering the thimble hole.
"It is also my opinion that, in general, the state's investigators
conducted an unscientific and erroneous investigation of this fire,
reaching unreliable and illogical conclusions," Filas wrote in his
affidavit. "The conclusion that there were multiple areas of origin,
which formed a basis for their opinion that the fire was arson,
was invalid and did not follow accepted fire investigation science."
Thomas R. May, an Innocence Clinic expert and a consultant with
Fire Litigation Strategies LLC, also criticized the state's investigation:
"The failure to properly examine the chimney by use of an interior
video inspection camera was an egregious investigative mishap that
typifies the haphazard investigative practices that were employed
here," he wrote in an affidavit.
The Clinic raised issues about other elements of the case as
well: the son of Caminata's then-girlfriend was home the entire
morning and saw Caminata the whole time; the then-girlfriend previously
admitted filing a false police report about another ex-boyfriend
and, therefore, shouldn't be trusted in her statements about Caminata;
and that the state's investigators relied on negative corpus—that
is, they ruled out other theories rather than finding evidence to
actually support their arson theory, a methodology that is widely
rejected by the fire-science community.
But the core of the Innocence Clinic's case, in many ways, is
the faulty science at the heart of numerous arson cases, says Imran
Syed, '11, staff attorney for the Clinic.
"Junk science" in arson cases is being challenged by the Innocence
Project and other organizations, and was the focus of a PBS
Frontline documentary, "Death by Fire." The Michigan Innocence
Clinic is working on three arson cases right now, and previously
exonerated a client, David Gavitt, who served 27 years for a fire
that killed his wife and two young children. The first thing he
wanted to do once leaving prison was visit their graves—something
he'd never had the chance to do because of the junk science that
led to his wrongful conviction, Syed said.
"Fire science has improved dramatically since the 1990s when
the NFPA first published its guidelines on how to scientifically
investigate a suspicious fire," Moran said. "But, unfortunately,
some fire examiners continued to employ the old and discredited
methods well into the 21st century. We know there are more innocent
people in prison who were sent there, like David Gavitt and Victor
Caminata, by junk fire science, and we hope to identify and exonerate
as many of them as we can."
Victor Caminata was freed on July 2, two days before the rest
of the country celebrated its independence. He ate lunch at Ruby
Tuesday in Cadillac with many of the members of his Innocence Clinic
team. He also called his ex-wife and told her he would surprise
He pulled up to their house, and his two youngest children, ages
12 and 9, ran to him. "It was awesome," Caminata recalls. "Just
to be able to hug and kiss them was unbelievable." He had last seen
them a year before at his mother's funeral.
Caminata is working for a pool installation company and spending
as much of his free time as possible with his three children. He
takes one daughter to 4-H, his son to football, and all of the kids
boating and tubing near Traverse City with his good friends Fred
and Kathy Moomey. (Without those friends, as well as sister Mary
and brother-in-law Todd Holmes, "I don't know what I would have
done; they've been there for me the whole way," Caminata says.)
He also is in regular contact with his attorneys from the Innocence
Clinic, as well as James Samuels of Big Rapids, Michigan, and Mike
McKenzie of Atlanta, Georgia, who will defend him at the retrial.
He credits the Clinic with finding evidence and experts that he
never could have found on his own, for believing in his innocence,
and for standing by him as his case moves forward—quickly, he hopes,
though he is not optimistic about the speed of the judicial system.
That is his life now: working, bonding with the children he's
missed raising for more than five years, and waiting—waiting for
word of a retrial date, or an announcement that the prosecution
won't retry the case. Whatever the prosecutor decides, he feels
confident of one thing, even during this time of deep uncertainty:
"I know I didn't do this, my attorneys know I didn't do this,
the evidence shows I didn't do this," he says. "There's no way they