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Out of the Fire

A fire investigator failed to notice a faulty wire — and a young woman paid dearly for it.

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When Harrisonville fire investigator Wayne Schraml and officers from the Missouri State Fire Marshal's Office failed to notice a bead of copper on a wire at the Cass County Medical Center after a fire in the respiratory therapy office in 2001, it cost then-20-year-old Jennifer Hall a year of her life in prison.

The fire, which caused an estimated $23,000 in damage to a desk, a computer and a wall in an office (to which Hall had one of the only keys), occurred near tanks that control a flow of oxygen to the entire Harrisonville hospital.

Hall was the respiratory therapist on duty at the hospital when the fire started, shortly after 7 p.m. January 24, 2001. She says she had left the building to get a soda out of her truck, thinking she wouldn't have time to get it later because she would be observing a patient in a sleep study.

When she heard the fire alarm, she rushed inside the hospital and joined two co-workers. All three heard over the intercom that the fire was located in the respiratory therapy offices. One of the workers, Violet Warren, ran to get a fire extinguisher while Hall and Mark Berry went toward the source of the fire to reach the oxygen-shut-off valve to prevent an explosion.

The trio made it through two doors before the smoke became too heavy for them to continue. Berry leaned farthest into the smoke, trying to see the source of the fire, and Warren reached around Hall to grab Berry's sleeve and pull him back. When Berry lost his balance, Hall says, he bumped into her accidentally, and she reached out to steady herself on a metal door frame, which was hot.

Schraml and his co-investigator from the fire marshal's office, Lee Johnson, could find no obvious cause for the blaze but noted the burn on Hall's hand and what they considered an unusual amount of charred paper in the vicinity of the fire. They concluded that it had been intentionally set. Three weeks later, police arrested Hall.

Hall's parents, Don and Debi Hall, say they now regret their next move, which was to hire Gary Cover of Clinton, Missouri, a lawyer recommended by a cousin.

In court transcripts, Cover routinely mixes up facts, dates and names. Don and Jennifer Hall say they both asked Cover whether he should examine the computer, clock and other equipment in the fire. But Cover said it was unnecessary. He did contact the assistant prosecutor handling the criminal case and ask to look at the items seized from the scene. But when he was told that the items were in the possession of the insurance company for the hospital, Cover focused instead on proving that Hall wasn't near the scene of the fire when it started.

Prosecutors Michael Yost and Jamie Hunt told Cass County jurors that Hall had burned herself on a match while setting the fire, not on a hot door frame, and that she had worn her hair curly that day -- it was normally straightened -- because she expected to be the center of attention after the arson allowed her to stage a heroic attempt to put out the fire.

Schraml, the investigator, testified that he saw no other explanation for the fire and that it must have been intentionally set. The prosecutors, meanwhile, claimed that Hall's motivation was her unhappiness over a sexual harassment claim that she'd made against a co-worker. "That motive, to us, was just insane," says Hall's father, who explains that the man about whom his daughter complained had died of a heart attack two weeks before the fire.

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