Investigators comb Vail fire scene | VailDaily.com

Investigators comb Vail fire scene

CVR Arson Investigation DT 9-25-12

VAIL, Colorado – An Eagle man allegedly harassed his ex-girlfriend for weeks before trying to burn down the building where he thought she was sleeping, residents said Tuesday.

Authorities said Andrew Wells, 31, was trying to avenge his broken heart when he allegedly set two fires in an East Vail apartment complex where his ex-girlfriend was living.

Ironically, she wasn’t there when the fires were set, residents said.

Wells faces at least a half dozen felony and misdemeanor charges for allegedly setting two fires early Saturday. Wells was arrested Saturday and is being held in the Eagle County jail on $765,000 bond.

Because one of the fires blocked the only escape route from a four-story apartment building, Wells could face an attempted murder charge for each person occupying the building when the fire was set, around 5 a.m. Saturday.

“He said he intended to scare the victim and force her to relocate out of Vail and to gain revenge against the victim for breaking his heart,” said District Attorney Mark Hurlbert, citing the arrest affidavit.

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Pattern of harassment

The harassment started around Labor Day, building residents said Tuesday.

Days before Saturday’s alleged arson fires, a Volkswagen Jetta burned in the night while it was parked outside an adjacent building.

“The investigation of the car fire found an accelerant in a place you wouldn’t expect to find it,” said Mike Vaughn, fire marshal with the Vail Fire Department.

Residents said that car fire started in the wheel well on the front passenger’s side, residents said, and that the car was completely destroyed.

The car did not belong to Wells’ ex-girlfriend; it belonged to a female resident living in a different building, residents said.

Police and fire investigators are trying to determine whether that car fire is tied to Wells and some of the other criminal activities in the apartment complex.

The sliding glass door leading to the apartment’s fourth floor balcony had been shattered earlier this month when a rock was thrown through it.

Tires on vehicles in the parking lot had been slashed and vehicles vandalized over the past few weeks, residents said. Wells’ ex-girlfriend’s car had been broken into repeatedly over the last few weeks, reports said.

Vail Police had been keeping a close eye on the apartment complex for weeks, and had been there three or four times over the past several days, residents said.

Police close at hand

Police were close at hand at 5 a.m. Saturday with a resident on an upper floor in one building spotted someone on the berm along Bighorn Road in East Vail, throwing rocks at the neighboring building, Vaughn said.

That resident called 911 and as he talked to dispatchers, he told them he smelled smoke. He went down the stairs and outside his building into the dark to take a look.

He walked about 90 feet across the grass and around to the front of the neighboring building, where he spotted the flames climbing up the exterior staircase, Vaughn said.

That exterior staircase was the only escape route for a dozen apartments on the building’s upper floors.

Vail police were on the scene moments later and knocked down the 8-foot-high flames with fire extinguishers they carry in their patrol vehicles. Less than four minutes after that, an engine company from Vail’s East Vail fire station extinguished the fire, which had begun to work its way up the inside of the staircase wall.

Chemical trail

Wells allegedly tried to set two fires, one on an exterior corner of a neighboring building, from which the resident called 911, and one on the exterior staircase of the building where Wells apparently thought his ex-girlfriend was.

As Wells allegedly moved from one building to another, petroleum-based chemicals leaked from the can he carried from the spot of that first fire, investigators said. What appears to be gasoline leaked from the can, onto the grass across the lawn and parking lot, and to the exterior staircase where the second fire was set, officials said.

The leaking can left a trail of dead grass and gasoline stains between the two buildings.

Vaughn said he could smell some sort of chemical accelerant as soon as he approached the stairwell to begin his investigation early Saturday morning.

“I walked to within 20 feet of the stairwell and I could smell something that should not be there,” Vaughn said.

Vaughn called Jerry Means, an arson investigator with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. Means brought Sadie, an arson dog trained to detect petroleum products.

When Sadie finds something, and she often did Saturday, Means drops a yellow coin that says, “Sadie was here.” On the other side is Means’ name and contact information.

Wells allegedly drove from his home in Eagle to East Vail where the fires were set using gasoline as an accelerant. He drove back to his home in Eagle where he was arrested later Saturday, reports said.

Wells faced two previous charges for violating a protection order in Massachusetts in 2007, and an Eagle County possession of marijuana case from 2009.

Wells told Judge Katharine Sullivan he will be applying for the public defender for the charges that led to Saturday’s arrest.

He’s back in court at 1 p.m. Oct. 9. He’ll also be back in court Oct. 10 for a separate DUI charge.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.