Fire Marshal investigator helps secure murder convictions, life sentences for WV mom who killed her two sons
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
March 13, 2019
Fire Marshal investigator helps secure murder
convictions, life sentences for W.Va. mom who killed her two sons
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Responding firefighters
carried the 3-year-old out of the burning home, in a futile effort to save him.
They found his 5-year-old brother on their bedroom floor – he had collapsed trying
to flee the flames on his bed.
The fire destroyed the boys’ Berkeley
County house that night in January 2017. Supervisory Investigator George A.
Harms of the West Virginia State Fire Marshal’s Office was left with a wreckage
of charred metal and ashes – and a grim resolve.
The resulting investigation led last week
to two consecutive, life-without-parole prison sentences for the children’s
mother, Molly Jo Delgado. The 31-year-old had earlier pleaded no contest to the
first-degree murders of sons Justin “Little Judd” Delgado Jr., 5, and Delmer
Delgado, 3, conceding that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict her.
Harms’ experience and skills from 32 years
as a fire marshal developed an investigation that yielded important clues,
including from a near-exact replica of the boys’ bedroom. He also helped secure
the most damning evidence: the mother’s confession that she set fire to each
Berkeley Circuit Judge Laura Faircloth
cited the investigation’s crucial findings when she sentenced Delgado.
“ASFM Harms’ work on this case was invaluable,”
said Berkeley County Prosecuting Attorney Catie Wilkes Delligatti. “We could
not have prosecuted and obtained the result that we did without his dedication,
which ensured he was able to solve this crime and bring justice to the family
of Delmer and Little Judd.”
Harms’ leadership, meanwhile, assured a
team effort. He enlisted the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and
Explosives and its Fire Research Laboratory; the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit;
the West Virginia State Police and its digital forensic technology section; the
Berkeley County sheriff’s reserve; and the Fire Marshal’s Office in neighboring
Loudon County, Va.
“I am proud
of the diligent work of so many to bring justice to a family facing such a
large loss,” said West Virginia State Fire Marshal Ken Tyree. “Any fire-related
death is tragic, but one done with such malicious intent to two young children
is horrific. I believe this was a just and proper verdict.”
The Bedington, Hedgesville and Martinsburg
fire departments had responded quickly to the fire. Arriving at the horrific
scene around 11 p.m. that night, Harms spent the next six hours searching in vain
for an ignition source.
“When I went in, I eliminated all the different
areas in the modular home and determined the children’s bedroom was where the
fire started,” Harms said. “When I left at 5 am, I could not find what could
have started the fire, such as matches, lighters, or an alternative heat source
such as a kerosene heater.”
Harms returned later the morning with a
search warrant and a canine trained in sniffing out accelerants. He worked the
scene until 3 p.m. that afternoon, but still without results.
Harms brought additional tools to bear. ATF
engineers reconstructed the bedroom at their lab, subjecting it to four test
burns. That helped support his initial hunch: he was dealing with two separate
fires, one on each child’s bed.
“We had the exact same beds, the bedding,
even the HVAC system and its air flow rate,” Harms recalled. “The four
recreations showed that separate fires had to be set; one fire could not jump
over to the other.”
The State Police performed a forensic
analysis of the mother’s cell phone at Harms’ request. That revealed she was
involved in an extramarital affair, and led investigators to her boyfriend. The
phone records showed she spoke to him for about an hour the night of the fire.
Harms believes she set the fires about 10 minutes after ending that call, and
then left the house.
Harms enlisted ATF criminal profiler and
Special Agent Stephen Patrick for tips on how to interview Delgado. That
prompted a visit to the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit at Quantico, Va. He presented
his case there, expecting advice on interview techniques. The unit instead
offered to assist his investigation, with Patrick to serve as lead interviewer.
“The BAU took this to a whole different
level,” Harms said.
During Patrick’s interview of Delgado, she
admitted she used a lighter to set fire to each son’s bedding. Autopsy results,
meanwhile, showed she had drugged the younger boy with a toxic dose of cough
Harms had found a distinct burn pattern where
the boy’s body was found. That showed the child was in the bed when the fire
started. Nearly overcome with emotion, Harms testified about this to the jury before
it recommended no mercy for Delgado.
“I was explaining the location of Justin’s
body, and it got to me after a bit,” Harms said.
Harms noted afterward that his two grandchildren
were, like Justin and Delmer, 5 and 3 at the time of the fire.
“That has to be something that goes to the
back of your mind. You can’t be emotional when you’re doing this job,” Harms
said. “People look for the investigators from the state, when we show up on
scene, to take the lead and give direction.”
Harms is helping to develop a presentation
on the Delgado case for fire investigators, as it features the four key methods
they employ: electrical arc mapping, which in this instance ruled out wiring as
a cause; fire dynamics analysis, which examines how a fire starts and spreads;
fire pattern analysis; and witness interviews.