By Anna Bauman and St. John Barned-Smith
Someone was starting fires across northwest Houston. More than a dozen of them.
Lemuel Bruce, an arson investigator with the Houston Fire Department’s Arson Bureau, tracked down the cellphone data the department’s arson investigators used to arrest a man earlier this month. But investigators were only able to tie him to seven blazes.
Bruce and other members of the arson bureau went to the Timbergrove neighborhood early Friday, hoping to track down another lead, authorities said.
Around 3:30 a.m., a suspect started shooting, killing Bruce, a 17-year department veteran, a husband and father of two. The suspect also died in the gunfire, though many of the details surrounding the incident remain obscured, including the suspect’s identity and how he died. The right bumper of his silver sedan was damaged.
The shooting death marks the first time a Houston arson investigator has been killed in the line of duty, Chief Samuel Peña said.
In a written statement, Bruce’s family said they were grateful for the support they’d received and asked for privacy.
“We are mourning the tragic, untimely passing of our husband, father, son, firefighter and fire investigator, former Marine crew chief, and friend,” the statement said. “As we begin to reflect on his life and what he meant to all of us, please know that he was forever dedicated to his family and to his profession.”
Bruce’s death was a harsh blow to the Arson Bureau, a tightknit unit of 70 investigators within the fire service.
“Today, I lost a member of my family,” said Bruce’s boss, Chief Investigator Alison Stein, her voice catching. “Second to my son, these are the most important people in my life. We’re very close, very protective of each other. It’s a very special unit.”
Investigators join the bureau only after working as regular firefighters, then becoming licensed peace officers. On average, they investigate some 1,100 fires a year, attempting to verify how fires started and separating accidental fires from those intentionally set.
“Sometimes that’s incredibly difficult,” Stein said.
On Friday, she recalled Bruce as a deeply witty, thorough and driven comrade.
“He’d be one of the guys I’d call who I knew would get it done right,” she said. “I knew I wouldn’t have to follow up.”
Stein said Bruce constantly spoke of his family, collected firearms, and enjoyed working outdoors at his home in Montgomery County.
The shooting occurred at 2100 W. 18th St. in Houston’s Lazybrook/Timbergrove neighborhood while Bruce and six other arson investigators were probing the recent rash of fires in northwest Houston.
They had arrested 28-year-old Jason Rauch a week previously, connecting him with at least seven fires.
Bruce, who authorities said was communicating with his team via radio, was following a vehicle that matched the description of a vehicle-of-interest in the string of recent fires. The suspect and Bruce exchanged gunfire at some point, said Houston Police assistant chief Matt Slinkard, but details of the encounter remain unclear.
“By the time the team arrived, this shooting had already occurred,” Slinkard said. “So we need to piece together what happened out there on this scene.”
Bullets struck Bruce several times in the upper torso and head, Peña said, though it appears the arson investigator never got out of his vehicle. Firefighters from Station 62 heard gunfire from blocks away and responded to the scene within minutes, Pena said. They took Bruce to Memorial Hermann. He was pronounced dead about 4:43 a.m.
Bruce and the suspect were the only two people in the shootout, Slinkard said, adding that police had not yet identified any witnesses.
Shortly before the shooting and roughly 2 miles away, a man set fire to Travis Allen’s Toyota Highlander parked in front of his home in the 2000 block of W. 14th St. by stuffing something in the tailpipe. Allen’s doorbell camera captured video of the man as he paused to look at the fire and walk away before flames engulfed the car. It’s unclear whether the man who set the car fire is the suspect who killed the arson investigator.
“The timing seems awfully coincidental,” Allen said.
Pena and Mayor Sylvester Turner offered condolences to Bruce’s wife, 12-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son.
“They are hurting right now, the department is hurting,” Peña said.
Rank-and-file firefighters likewise mourned, said Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton.
“Please keep Lemuel’s family, friends and arson unit in your thoughts and prayers,” Lancton said, in a statement issued in response to Bruce’s death. “Investigator Bruce leaves behind a loving family, including his wife, daugther and son, along with many friends and a long list of Houston firefighters who respected and enjoyed serving with him.”
Multiple agencies are investigating the case as an officer-involved shooting. The arson investigator did not have a body camera.
Some nearby neighbors awoke in the night to the commotion, while others slept through it and discovered what happened on the morning news.
Shane Kogan, who lives near 18th Street, said he heard 10 gunshots following a commotion around 3:30 or 3:45 a.m.
“You could hear a screech and maybe some cars hitting each other,” he said. After that it was “pretty quiet.”
Next door, Laurent Benkowski said he heard something that “jumped me out of bed” in the middle of the night. It sounded like a truck, he said.
Benkowski said he wondered if the arson investigation was related to Molotov cocktails that were recently ignited in the neighborhood.
A man threw Molotov cocktails — homemade incendiary devices — in two driveways on Brooktree Drive around 3 a.m. Oct. 4, according to Houston police. It remains unclear whether the bombs are connected to the arson investigation involving the string of fires, most of which occurred in the Oak Forest area and surrounding neighborhoods in northwest Houston.
Daryl Page, 73, said she was watching TV shortly after 3:30 a.m. when she heard what sounded like firecrackers.
“I think it’s terrible,” she said. “A guy doing his job … and he’s gone.”
John Nelson, a few doors down on Watercrest Drive, heard what sounded like gunfire. He said has been following updates about the fire investigation and Timbergrove Molotov cocktails on social media.
After those incidents and Friday’s shooting, neighbors are not quite on edge, he said, but “our ears and eyes are open.”
(c)2020 the Houston Chronicle
Visit the Houston Chronicle at www.chron.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.