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Probing Fires/Explosives at ATF

Billy Magalassi investigates fires and explosives at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

As an ATF Agent in Oklahoma, Alumnus Billy Magalassi assisted in the investigation a woman and two children found dead in a trailer fire. After carefully piecing the case together, the evidence showed the woman was brutally stabbed to death by a boyfriend, her eight-year-old son was fatally wounded coming to her aid, and her six-year-old daughter was locked in a closet alive before the house was set on fire.

“On a personal note, I try and be an advocate for the victims who are no longer here to tell anyone what happened,” Magalassi said. “I’ve been doing this for 26 years, and seeing the victims, particular the boy, who after seeing his mom attacked and stabbed by the boyfriend, was coming to Mom’s aid. He was just a child, and you just want to do something for them. So you put the case back together and deliver it to a jury to tell their story.”

For their work in the 2010 case, Magalassi, now Resident Agent in Charge of the ATF Tulsa Field Office, and Jamie Lord of the ATF Fire Research Laboratory in Ammendale, Maryland, were awarded the “2013 Fire Investigators of the Year” by the International Association of Arson Investigators. In addition to processing the scene, the investigation included locating and reassembling the same model trailer to test fire origin and burn rates of the fire and to document the impact the fire had on the young girl in the closet. As a result, the suspect was found guilty of all three murders and arson and sentenced to death. (See video interviews at the IAAI web site.)

Unlike most ATF agents, who specialize in guns, gangs and drugs, Magalassi is a Certified Fire Specialist (CES), the only federal law enforcement officers that qualify as expert witnesses in fire origin and cause cases in federal courts. Magalassi is also a Certified Explosives Specialist, charged with probing the origin and causes of cases involving explosives as well as demolishing ordnances found. Each specialty required two additional years of training.

Although ATF has a cadre of bomb technicians, the ATF Certified Explosives Specialists perform a very unique role in explosives disposal, post blast investigation, and explosives origin and cause investigation.

“We are not bomb technicians, but we do explosives research and demolition and handle large amounts of explosives material,” said Magalassi. “I’ve disposed of handmade explosives and 20 year old dynamite someone found in his father’s shed.”

Magalassi, who graduated from Sam Houston State University in 1986, began his career as a Dallas police officer before joining the ATF in 1990 as a special agent. After five years on general assignment, he decide to sign up for the elite crew of fire investigators following a series of church fires in the South. There are only 80 certified fire specialists in ATF nationwide, and many of the agents were retiring.

“It peaked my interest,” he said. “I think it is one of the most positive things the ATF does. I am proud to be a part of it.”

In addition to assisting local and state agencies with large fires or those involving homicides, the ATF investigates any structure fire that involves interstate commerce. This can includes such businesses as hotels, apartments, stores, restaurants or rental property. The agency also is charged under U.S. Title 18 Chapter 844 with investigating any crime using fire or explosives that can be prosecuted in U.S. District Courts, such as property owners who burn down structures to collect insurance. Under the federal code, the penalty for arson is very steep. In one of his cases, where a man was convicted of burning down two rental properties for insurance, the suspect was sentenced to 430 months in prison.

“It’s a lot different than the gangs, guns and violent crime that ATF agents are known for,” said Magalassi. “We handle the cases with the white collar criminal flair.”

Another exciting aspect of his job is the Fire Research Facility in Ammendale, Maryland. The state-of-the-art facility is staffed by fire engineers and electrical engineers, who can replicate fires to prove or disprove theories. The facility was used to solve the Oklahoma fire and, in another case, a three story home was replicated inside the building and burned. The expertise and services even have been used outside the country in U.S. territories across the globe.

For explosive cases, Magalassi is called upon to rebuild bombs from shrapnel or to retrieve explosive materials.

Magalassi also serves as the Resident Agent in Charge of the Tulsa Field Office, which covers 37 counties in Oklahoma. As head of an active office, Magalassi often can be found on the scene of ongoing investigations.

Magalassi urged students interested in federal service to get experience in local police departments first. “It prepared me well to step in the role of a federal agency,” he said. “I really believe that you have to go to a police department to get real world police experience. You will never get the street level knowledge you get as a local cop.”

Magalassi said his career has taken him all over the world and he is proud of the work he has done. He also is grateful for his education at SHSU, which was often provided by faculty with professional experience in the field.

“ATF has been a great career,” Magalassi said. “I have gotten to travel all over the world. I have gotten to experience things that I thought I would never get to see or do.”

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