Montana arson mystery deepens

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com August 19 2002 11:00 PM ET

A 17-page application for a search warrant in the arson case of a Missoula, Mont., lesbian couple whose house burned down in February provides the most detailed account of the investigation yet made public.

Carla Grayson and Adrianne Neff said they barely escaped the fire with their newborn son and that the fire that destroyed their home was a hate crime resulting from a lawsuit they filed days earlier against the Montana university system. The suit, brought by Grayson, a University of Montana assistant professor, and Neff along with another lesbian couple, accused the university system of violating the state constitution by not providing health insurance and other benefits to the partners of gay employees.

Police used a search warrant in early August to examine contents of a safe belonging to Grayson and Neff. The safe was searched August 8, but the search warrant request became public Thursday, when it was filed in Missoula County District Court.

The warrant application describes the arson device as a gasoline-soaked rope strung through both floors of the house, with intermittent piles of gasoline-soaked rags and socks on it. Gasoline had been poured or spread down the stairwell and on furniture in the living room. Investigators believe the arsonist used gasoline from the couple's garage, the application says. The couple said they kept gasoline for a lawnmower.

According to the warrant request, arson investigators are skeptical about several aspects of the blaze. David Campbell, who has testified in court a number of times as an expert witness about fires, said, "An outsider would have been unfamiliar with the residence, would not have known where the items used would have been stored, and would have had to have laid down all the gasoline-soaked trailers in the dark without disturbing the residents who were in the home."

County attorney Fred Van Valkenburg said he is awaiting results from the FBI of DNA tests and a handwriting analysis on the threatening letters the two couples allegedly received. He added that there is still not enough evidence to charge anyone.

Grayson, who took a sabbatical from the University of Montana, where she is an assistant professor of psychology, and Neff have temporarily relocated to Michigan, according to deputy Missoula County attorney Karen Townsend.

Van Valkenburg said he had no reason to ask them to stay in Missoula and had no sense that they were fleeing.