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Police believe deceased set 12 fires

by Valerie Verkamp and Ivan Foley
Landmark staff

One man--the suspect police believe torched the vehicles--died in a series of 12-14 car fires in Platte City Friday morning.

Police say the suspect, identified as Curtis Durbin, 20, of Platte City, died inside a pickup. Police said Durbin set the interior of the truck on fire, but could not get out of the cab before he was overcome by smoke.

“We have information from the owner of the truck that the driver’s door lock was messed up. He would have had to use a tool to open the door from the inside or roll the window down and reach out,” said Det. Al DeValkenaere of the Platte City Police Department.

“The cab would have filled with toxic smoke so fast in that closed environment. . . it would have been akin to a gas chamber,” DeValkenaere told The Landmark this week.

“Experts will tell you it can take as little as two breaths. It’s not like he was in there struggling. I think what happened took place really fast. I think probably less than a minute,” Devalkenaere said.

The foam and plastics found in the interior of vehicles are very toxic, according to DeValkenaere.

“The plastics inside, the foam, the plastics in the dash can give off cyanide and arsenic,” he said.

DeValkenaere said he does not believe the suspect used an accelerant.

“It’s hard to tell with car fires because the foam in the seat is a petroleum-based product and it pools like an accelerant,” he explained.

DeValkenaere said police were familiar with Durbin.

“We’ve had some minor in possession contact with h im, some drug paraphernalia,” he said.

He said there is no indication that Durbin had an accomplice in the Friday morning string of fires.

Brandon Vanmeter, who owned the GMC truck where Durbin's body was discovered at 2113 Wilkerson Drive, told The Landmark that he awoke Friday morning to find his truck full of smoke and on fire. When he noticed emergency personnel up the street at the scene of a separate vehicle fire, he sought their help.

According to Vanmeter, emergency personnel first discovered Durbin's body once the smoke subsided.

Vanmeter said his vehicle, as well as his girlfriend's vehicle, were a total loss.

“My truck was an older truck and I only had it partially insured,” said Vanmeter.

Carl Mitchell, Platte City chief of police, said an autopsy of Durbin’s body revealed high levels of carbon monoxide. His cause of death was determined to be smoke inhalation.

Police said around 14 vehicles were entered or tampered with and at least 12 of them were set on fire.

The first call of the arsons was received at 5:25 a.m. The body was found in the pickup around 7 a.m.

Cpt. Erik Holland of the Platte County Sheriff's Department said different vehicles had varying degrees of damage. The fires were set in the interior of vehicles, he said. None of the vehicles appear to have been fully engulfed in flames.

Authorities reasoned that the fires in part were suffocated when the alleged arsonist closed the doors after setting fire to the interior.

The damaged vehicles in the neighborhood--primarily Catie Lane, Wilkerson Drive and Gates Drive area--sat marked with police tape Friday. The calls came in as individuals were leaving to head to work and noticed their vehicle smoldering or in flames.

The Platte City Police Department, Platte County Sheriff's Department, Kansas City Bomb and Arson Squad, Kansas City Crime Scene Unit, ATF, State Fire Marshall, Jackson County Medical Examiner, and the Missouri Highway Patrol were all involved in the investigation.