On the evening of October 10, 1999 multiple tragedies struck Mike. Mike turned on a lamp in his apartment and left to get gas in the car for his wife so she would have enough fuel to drive to work in the morning. While he was away from home, for approximately 20 to 30 minutes, flames were seen in the area where the lamp was located, by a neighbor. Mike’s wife was burned and his son died of smoke inhalation. On November 10, 1999, Mike was intensely interrogated resulting in a false and coerced confession. He was then arrested tried and convicted in Augusta County Virginia. Mike was represented by Public Defender William Bobbitt and James Dugan. The Prosecuting Attorney was A. Lee Irvin. Mike received five years for arson, 45 years for the murder of his son and found not guilty of attempting to murder his wife.
Combustion Science and Engineering,Inc. (CSE) of Columbia, Maryland did a post fire analysis of this fire incident. They reported prior to the trial the lamp Mike turned on before he left was the probable cause of the fire. It matches the burn pattern on the wall, the time Mike left and a forensic blood test from his wife. They determined it was scientifically impossible for Mike to have thrown a lit candle into a polyurethane chair before he left. They also determined Mike was not there when the fire started.
Clicking through this site, you will read a fire scene report which was submitted on October 20 by Virginia State Police Officer, Officer Watson. This report was submitted after Officer J. B Watson completed his fire scene investigation, October 11, and shut the door and cleared the fire scene without eliminating electrical shorting as a cause of this fire, and without fully determining the actual cause of the fire. He never returned to the scene to rule out the possibility that the fire had been started by an electrical short. An insurance investigator, Gary Toler, investigated the fire on October 12, the day after Officer Watson cleared the fire scene. When he arrived, he photographed of the outside door with police tape dangling on the door.
As you continue to view the site, you will read about Mike’s claim of coercion by the police using the scenario of setting the fire by lighting a tapered candle from a candle holder on a table and igniting a polyurethane chair. As Mike recalls he was told he had a reason for putting it in the chair and he needed to explain it. You will read about the photographic evidence available to Mike’s attorneys before the trial. These photographs through visual observation available to his attorneys demonstrated coercion by police officers during the interrogation because the candle holders with candles in them were not on the table next to the polyurethane chair before he left. Mike claims his attorneys had access to 47 photographs taken throughout every room and a report from an insurance investigator Gary Toler taken on October 12. Gary Toler did not document any candle holders in his report or document finding any wax or wax residue in the apartment. Neither did Officer Watson. According to Mike, the jury only was shown about 20 minutes of the end of the interrogation tape, minus the scenario.
In Officer Watson's fire scene reports, the origin of this fire on October 11 was determined to be on the floor and burnt up the wall. In a forensic scientist report from, Thomas P. Simpson, it was noted one item was tested from evidence received on October 14, collected from Officer J. B Watson, on October 11. On October 20 Officer Watson submitted his fire scene diagram of the apartment with the area next to the wall marked as an evidence collection area. On October 21 the result of the forensic testing was no petroleum products were found. On November 10 Mike was interrogated and arrested. During the April preliminary hearing Officer Watson’s opinion of the origin changed. Officer Watson testified he had taken cut out section of carpet from under the chair on October 11 and the confession statement matched his hypothesis. Officer Watson testified during this hearing that he received no other information.
During the trial in September, a Commonwealth witness, Gary Toler testified he examined the fire scene on October 12 the day after Officer Watson. During the trial he testified to finding the remains of a metal cup from a tea candle under the chair. Officer Watson during the previous April preliminary hearing testified to examining all the furniture and the floor area on October 11. He submitted his fire scene report on October 20 and documented the fire as undetermined. Gary Toler testified during the trial he talked to Officer Watson before October 20. Gary Toler, during the September trial, testified he filed his report on December 28 after he heard a confession was made. In his December 28 report he documented that he had used two rolls of film and had taken a total 47 photographs on October 12. He documented the order he had taken them on photograph description sheets and also documented the photographic order in his diagram. Mike’s attorneys had access to this report and his photographic order and failed to enter them into evidence during the trial. After opening the front door, his first photograph, number 4, shows the polyurethane chair located in the diningroom. In his report he noted photo number 19 as a view of the floor where the chair and a quilt rack were located. In the second roll of film, photo number 41, he documented the quilt rack and the chair as put-back in their original positions. Photo 44 was documented as a photo of the lamp. He then documented 45 and 46 as photos of the electrical panel. The 47th photo was taken outside the apartment. In Toler’s report he wrote he examined the debris and the furniture. The metal cup from a tea candle under the chair was not documented. The only item he documented as retrieving was the smoke alarm. Mike does not recall a metal cup find as evidence against him during his interrogation. Mike's interrogation was after Officer Watson testified on October 11 he examined this area, had taken a cut out section of carpet from this area and received no other information, only the confession.
Dr. Richard Roby a Principal Engineer of Combustion Science and Engineering testified for the defense. He testified he used the scientific method as a methodology for doing proper fire scene investigation. He continued to testify that the scientific method is a methodology that’s been adopted in the physical sciences for hundreds of years in an objective way to do scientific investigations. Continuing he explained what is involved, including gathering facts, data, forming a hypothesis, testing the hypothesis against the known facts and data that you collected,and if it fits then you can continue on with the hypothesis. A good investigator does this.
The jury was aware through Dr. Roby's testimony that Dr. Roby helped write the NFPA 921 guidelines for fire investigation. Officer Watson testified during the preliminary hearing, he was familiar with the NFPA 921 guidelines for fire investigations and it was a reference guide used, and he referred to that guide as far as when he needed to, as far as the investigation goes. The jury was not aware Officer Watson failed to develop a hypothesis using the scientific approach. He did not seek any forensic blood test results, did not have the smoke alarm tested, and did not subpoena the 911 dispatch calls until after he arrested Mike. The Commonwealth failed to produce two candle holders, and the remains of a metal cup and any wax or wax residues during the trial. Dr. Roby, without the jury present, was accepted as an expert on the effects of toxic gasses on humans. When the jury was present, Dr. Roby was denied to testify to the jury about the effects toxic gasses had on Mike’s wife.
Combustion Science and Engineering in 2010 re-visited the Michael Ledford fire incident. You can review the visit by clicking on CSE IFSI 2010 paper.
Witnesses who did not testify during the trial:
* Two women who reported, to Officer Watson, the lamp was malfunctioning during the afternoon before the fire.
* A Medical Examiner who determined this fire was accidental and Mike was not home when the fire occurred.
* The forensic scientist who tested the evidence collected by Officer Watson. Officer Watson testified to the results.
* A witness who was outside unloading a truck and discovered the fire about 20 minutes after he saw Mike leave. He was questioned by the police after Mike was arrested.
* Two forensic scientists who preformed blood test analysis, one on Mike’s son and one on Mike’s wife.
Mike proclaims his innocence. Mike believes the lamp he turned on before he left was the cause of the fire and it was not arson. Neither Officer Watson nor Gary Toler examined the lamp switch and electrical shorting was not eliminated. Mike would appreciate the help of an aggressive attorney, the help of forensic experts and anyone else who could offer any assistance. Mike is hoping for Governor McDonnell to give him a full pardon. His hope is that Governor McDonnell will recognize the scientific evidence proving he was not there when the fire started. The fact that the lamp was never tested. electrical shorting was never eliminated as a possible cause and no wax or wax residue was found, should show a reasonable doubt.