Look For Answers Elsewhere

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By | Jack Douglas Jr. and Jason Allen

WEST, TX (CBSDFW.COM) – More than three years after one of the deadliest fires in state history, ruled arson by the federal government, no suspect has been caught, no motive established and no substantial reward posted for leads.

So the I-Team went to the small Central Texas town of West, rocked in April 2013 by a fertilizer plant explosion, and began asking questions.

Consider the following.

  • When a college student disappeared in south Texas this fall, there was a $200,000 reward offered to find her.
  • When a Dallas woman was accused of arranging her rival’s murder, she made the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list.
  • But in West, where the explosion killed 15 people, 12 of them firefighters, and hundreds were injured, the reward to find the person or persons responsible is a mere $50,000.

In addition, after three and a half years, there are growing doubts about the federal government’s conclusions that the fire, which subsequently triggered the explosion, was “incendiary,” meaning arson.

“I don’t believe it,” said Holly Harris, who lost her husband, Dallas fire Capt. Kenny “Luckey” Harris Jr., a 32-year veteran of the department.

They were two blocks from the fertilizer plant, at a friend’s house cooking hamburgers, when the fire began.

“He said he was going to see if they needed any help,” said Harris, in an exclusive interview with the I-Team. “It was just a very few minutes after that when it exploded,” she said.

Harris is among others in West who said they do not believe the arson ruling by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The town is too small, the explosion too big, for someone to get away with such a crime, they said.

“I think somebody would talk. It would spread. We would have known about it,” Harris said.

The ATF’s arson announcement in May shocked some of the people in West.

“Well, it just tore that scab off …the wound is now open again,” said John Crowder, a civic leader and pastor of the First Baptist Church in West.

“We need some answers, if nothing else, so we can get away from all of the chaotic thinking. Let’s get the answer so we know the truth …so we can move forward on a solid foundation,” Crowder told the I-Team.

There are those in West who believe that, instead of an arsonist, the real culprit is the ammonium nitrate, and how it was distributed and stored inside the plant, at the time of the explosion.

That will be one of several arguments that will be made in a massive civil trial, scheduled to begin early next year, where victims, the town of West and agricultural chemical companies will point fingers at who they feel is at fault.

Two of the main companies – Eldorado Chemical and CF Industries – declined repeated requests by the I-Team for a comment.

While not going into detail, the ATF said its arson ruling was sound, based on scientific testing.

The agency also refuted another thought among West residents – that the ruling was an act of desperation, provoked by a need to justify its three-year investigation, costing taxpayers more than $2 million and involving interviews with more than 400 witnesses.

“No, we are not bending to any political pressure. We’re trying to determine that happened. We’re trying to find out what is the truth,” said Gary Orchowski, the acting Special Agent in Charge of the ATF’s Houston office, which is spearheading the investigation.

In the ATF’s first public interview since issuing the arson ruling, Orchowski told the I-Team the agency has ruled out any possible accidental cause for the fire and explosion, including smoking, a faulty golf cart inside the plant or an electrical malfunction.

“The only hypothesis we could not rule out, and we proved through extensive testing, was incendiary,” he said.

Orchowski defended the ATF’s $50,000 reward, which West residents say pales in comparison to what the FBI offers for information on its most-wanted fugitives, starting at double that amount and, in the case of terrorists, reaching into the millions of dollars.

The FBI simply has more money than the ATF, Orchowski said, even though both agencies are under the same roof of the U.S. Justice Department.

And why is that?

“You’d have to ask Congress that, sir,” the veteran ATF agent told the I-Team.

Orchowski also said the FBI is not helping in the case because – even though neither a suspect nor a motive has been established – the ATF has concluded the explosion was not a terrorist act.

“Our testing and the interviews have led us in the direction we’re going. And that shows that there are no signs of terrorism,” he said.

People in West told the I-Team they are confused by the government’s logic. They also said they would like to see the investigation move in a different direction.

“I don’t believe it was arson. And I don’t believe what started the fire is important,” said Harris, adding, “I would like to see more regulations on shipping and storing the chemicals so that this doesn’t happen again.”

The ATF, in its interview with the I-Team, said it was continuing to work hard to find who is responsible for one of the worst tragedies in Texas history.

It asked that anyone with information should contact them on the agency’s website, which includes the hotline number, 1-800-ATF-GUNS.

In addition, the ATF said it would accept any private donations to increase the reward in the case.

If you want to reach CBS 11′s Senior Investigative Producer Jack Douglas Jr., you can email him at jdouglas@cbs.com. If you want to reach CBS 11′s Jason Allen, you can email him at jmallen@cbs.com.