Probing the ashes: “Suspicious” barn fire under scrutiny

The aftermath of the fire.

As investigators continued their search for clues to the cause of an August 8 fire that destroyed a centuries-old barn in Woodstock and injured the resident of a nearby property, one law enforcement official confirmed that the blaze was considered suspicious.

“It’s a suspicious fire at this point,” said Lt. Richard Mazzone of the Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI), a division of the state police. The massive fire, which quickly consumed the historic barn at 166 Wittenberg Road, inflicted second-degree burns on Janet Shultis, a neighbor, when she reportedly ran past the inferno toward her house.

The all-volunteer Ulster County Fire Investigation Unit (FIU), formerly known as the Arson Task Force, is in charge of the initial stage of the probe into the fire. The unit’s chief fire investigator, Dave Warringer, reported in an August 21 interview that photographs had been taken, but no physical evidence collected, at the scene of the blaze. Warringer supervises a team of seven other investigators and two deputies.

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The BCI is conducting interviews while awaiting the results of the FIU’s investigation, said Mazzone, who is affiliated with Troop F of the state police, based in Middletown. The BCI, he said, would launch a criminal probe if the county agency’s analysis warrants such an action. “We are in communication with the Fire Investigation Unit, which is looking into the cause. Their findings will guide our investigation. We have performed interviews and are continuing with interviews,” the lieutenant said in a recent interview.

In the absence of on-site evidence, interviews have been the mainstay of the investigation, said Warringer. Approximately eight interviews have been conducted thus far, with the subjects including the property’s owners, Mitch Vinicor and his wife, RoseAnn Doherty-Vinicor. Warringer declined to comment when asked if residents of neighboring properties were among those who had been questioned.

The Woodstock Police Department is also involved in the case, although it has no investigators of its own. On August 21 the police chief, Clayton Keefe, said it was his understanding, as reported by Warringer, that no evidence was found at the scene of the fire. Keefe, like Warringer, declined to identify the subjects of the interviews that have been conducted. “I would rather not say at this time,” the chief responded. “We are certainly looking into ‘persons of interest,’ but I would rather not mention any names.”

Janet Shultis received initial treatment for burn injuries involving her right arm and the right side of her face at Kingston Hospital and subsequent treatment at Westchester Medical Center, in Valhalla. Her husband, Vernon Shultis, said in an August 14 phone interview that the injury to her arm might require a skin graft. (See Woodstock Times, August 16, 2012.)

Vernon Shultis was arrested in 1996 in connection with a series of barn fires in the area. He pleaded guilty to five counts of second-degree arson and one count of attempted arson and served a prison term of about two years before he was released in 1999. In the recent interview with Woodstock Times he said that he had “no idea” what caused the August 8 fire.

Meanwhile, the FIU is reportedly investigating other recent barn fires in the county, including a blaze in Olive that occurred days after the Wittenberg Road conflagration.

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