Investigation reveals insufficient security before fire

June 19, 2008 7:11:13 PM PDT
A single state trooper guarding the Governor's Mansion the night an arsonist torched the landmark was inadequately trained and ill-equipped to guard the grounds, a Department of Public Safety sergeant investigating the security in place at the time of the fire said Thursday. "This is likely not the finest moment for the Department of Public Safety," DPS Commission Chairman Allan Polunsky said of the agency's failure to stop the June 8 blaze.

DPS Sgt. Michael Escalante told the commission that the one trooper on duty the night of the blaze was not adequately trained to monitor the security system, which was not working properly and required extra vigilance from the trooper. In addition, only 13 of the 20 security cameras on the mansion grounds were operating, he said.

Despite requests for a second trooper to guard the mansion, only one had been assigned.

"There should have been another trooper on the ground, a second set of eyes," Escalante said.

The trooper was on his second shift of the day when the fire was first reported just after 1:30 a.m., he said.

The state fire marshal, who is investigating the fire, has said video footage shows a suspect in the early morning hours of June 8, standing in front of the Governor's Mansion, igniting an object and throwing it onto the porch of the historic landmark, creating a fireball and blaze that ravaged the 152-year old structure.

The trooper on guard at the time was turned away from the security console in the carriage house behind the mansion and was working on a computer on the other side of the room. Escalante said troopers guarding the mansion are allowed a certain amount of personal time to watch television or use the computer.

An off-duty police officer walking near the mansion at the time of the blaze told the trooper that he had seen a suspicious-looking individual rush away from the mansion area, get in a parked car and drive away, Escalante said. A cigarette lighter found by the officer where the car had been parked has been turned over to the DPS as evidence.

Polunsky said Thursday that he intends to ask the U.S. Secret Service to come to Austin to do a security assessment of the Capitol complex grounds, to determine what DPS security measures would be appropriate to protect the Capitol and surrounding buildings in the future.

The two-story Greek Revival style house has been the official home of every Texas governor since it was completed in 1856, including Sam Houston and George W. Bush.

Despite massive damage to the roof and front columns, experts say the historic landmark is salvageable and Gov. Rick Perry has said he's committed to restoring the mansion no matter the cost.

The Perrys had moved out of the mansion last fall for a renovation project estimated to cost $10 million. Antique furniture and other relics had been placed in storage.

In addition to a sprinkler system, the renovation project was to include new plumbing, lead paint abatement and restored windows and shutters. It was to have been completed by next spring.

Inside, paint and wallpaper had been stripped from the interior walls and experts had begun efforts to preserve the home's ornate crown molding.

Experts said protective coverings that had been in place for the renovation spared the house more serious damage.

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