On March 2, 2008, a fire erupted in the home of Nicole Vanderhoef in rural Wexford County, Michigan after she had gone to work. Vanderhoef’s fiancé, 33-year-old Victor Caminata, ordered Vanderhoef’s 13-year-old son, Tyler, to rouse his 7-year-old sister and Caminata’s young daughter, Brooke, and get out of the house while he went to the basement to try to spray a fire extinguisher on the wood stove that heated the home.
Caminata, a building contractor who had worked as a volunteer fireman years earlier, told investigators he had recently installed the new wood stove in the basement and that he had stoked it with wood twice that morning before Tyler noticed smoke coming out of a wall. Caminata called for help and after attempting to staunch the blaze by using a fire extinguisher on the stove, he said he put a ladder to the side of the house and dropped a flame retardant down the chimney. No one was injured, but the home was declared a total loss.
A few days after the fire, a woman who refused to give her name called Wexford County Sheriff’s police and claimed to have heard Caminata say that based on his firefighting experience, he knew how to burn a house down without getting caught.
The fire was initially determined to be an accidental chimney fire and within a month, the insurance company paid Vanderhoef $273,000 for the loss of the home and furnishings.
Not long after, Vanderhoef and Caminata split up and Vanderhoef told police for the first time that the night before the fire, she and Caminata had quarreled and she had ordered him out of the house. Despite that claim, Vanderhoef had gone to work on the day of the fire and left Caminata to watch the three children.
Prompted by Vanderhoef’s statement, a state fire investigator and an insurance company investigator re-examined the evidence—although by that time, the house had been demolished. Both concluded the fire was arson based on their determination that the blaze had multiple, unconnected origins and some of the ignition points—in the basement rafters—appeared to have been started with a blowtorch.
Caminata was arrested and charged with arson in November 2008. He went on trial in May 2009. Arson investigators testified for the prosecution that the fire started outside of the chimney in separate areas that were intentionally set. The prosecution, relying on Vanderhoef’s testimony about her fight with Caminata the night before the blaze, argued that Caminata set the blaze because he was going to lose his “meal ticket.” After the fire, the prosecution argued, Vanderhoef would need Caminata, who was a building contractor, to rebuild their home.
Caminata’s attorney called an arson expert who testified that the fire started in the chimney and was an accident. Caminata did not testify.
On May 14, 2009, a jury convicted Caminata of arson. He was sentenced to nine to 40 years in prison.
After his conviction was upheld in October 2010 by the Michigan Court of Appeals, Caminata obtained assistance from the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School.
The Innocence Clinic discovered that in 2003, Vanderhoef had filed a false report with the Missaukee County Sheriff’s Department, claiming her estranged boyfriend had made disturbing phone calls. An investigation determined that no such calls had been made and that Vanderhoef made the false claim to attempt to terminate or reduce visitation rights with their daughter.
The Innocence Clinic obtained arson experts who concluded that the prosecution’s arson investigators’ analyses of the fire were severely flawed and not based on scientifically proven fire standards. The Innocence Clinic experts said that photographs of the chimney clearly showed shoddy construction and a large buildup of creosote—a flammable substance. The Innocence Clinic experts said the fire was accidental and the result of an improperly installed stove and numerous fire code violations in the chimney and walls around the chimney.
The Innocence Clinic filed a motion for a new trial based on the failure of trial counsel to make a convincing case that the state's expert evidence on arson was unreliable as well as the lawyer's failure to discover and present powerful evidence undermining Vanderhoef's credibility.
On July 2, 2013, at a hearing for the new evidence, the prosecution agreed that the original conviction should be vacated. The judge vacated Caminata’s conviction and ordered a new trial, and Caminata was released on bond. The prosecution continued to investigate the case and, on January 22, 2014, dismissed the charge.
In April 2014, Caminata filed a civil law suit in federal court seeking damages for his wrongful incarceration.
– Maurice Possley