San Francisco, CA — A Vietnam War veteran whose attempt to de-stress with an aromatherapy candle resulted in a fire was acquitted of arson after spending 10 months in jail, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi announced today.
Jurors on Thursday afternoon found Jeffrey Triano, 59, not guilty of arson of an inhabited structure and arson of property. If convicted of both felonies, he faced eight years in prison, two “strikes,” and lifetime registration as an arsonist, said Triano’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Aleem Raja.
Triano, disabled due to war-related post traumatic stress disorder, had been an active participant of counseling and support groups through the Veterans Administration, even holding a work-therapy position as a janitor at the VA. On Feb. 9, in an effort to relax after dealing with bills, Triano decided to employ aromatherapy, a stress reduction technique he had learned from a therapist.
Triano lit a vanilla tea light and placed it on the seat of a vinyl chair in his bedroom while he did housework. Soon, he smelled something burning and realized that the metal candle holder had heated up as the wax melted, scorching the chair. Triano, panicked, blew several times on the flame, which flared up as wax splattered onto the smoking chair. Triano then knocked the candle into a plastic trash can and attempted to take it into his bathroom. Instead, he tripped; dropping the trash can onto the bed before running outside his Sutter Street apartment to get help. Witnesses described him as panicked, disoriented and incoherent.
“The smell of the burning plastic trash can triggered his PTSD,” Raja said. “He was not in San Francisco at that moment. He was in Vietnam, on a search and rescue mission to a crashed and burning helicopter.”
Responding officers arrested Triano.
“People without much training in mental health interpreted his behavior as a sign he was an arsonist instead of recognizing it for what it was—a manifestation of his past trauma,” Raja said.
The small fire in Triano’s unit destroyed his mattress, bedding and chair before it was extinguished.
Triano’s case was then rejected from San Francisco’s Veterans Court due to objections by the District Attorney’s Office, Raja said, causing Triano to languish behind bars for 10 months.
During the five day trial, Raja exposed the inexperience of the San Francisco Fire Department arson investigator who concluded that Triano set his mattress on fire with a lighter. Jurors examined the fire investigator’s own photographs, in which evidence of an accidental fire could be seen but was never documented in the report.
“He missed key pieces of evidence that would have exonerated Mr. Triano immediately,” Raja said. “He missed the fact that there was evidence of a candle and he missed the melted trash can on the bed.”
Raja also questioned the fire investigator regarding a 2012 botched arson probe. In that case, the investigator drew his conclusion after gathering evidence on the wrong floor of a building. Prosecutors, who discovered the error earlier this year, decided they could no longer rely on his conclusion.
“Ten months of Mr. Triano’s life were taken away because people jumped to conclusions,” Raja said. “It was the 12 citizens willing to look at the evidence and listen to Mr. Triano who made sure justice was done.”
Adachi said the case demonstrates how easily mistakes can happen in the criminal justice system.
“Mr. Triano came terribly close to spending eight years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, based on a faulty investigation. Fortunately, his public defender was able to show that he was innocent,” Adachi said.