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 boy’s bed.
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 syrup.
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.