Phoenix fire Captain Willie Nelson, a dogged sleuth who knows how to tell arson from accidental, has been named the department's top investigator for 2009.
Nelson (alas, no relation to the famous country crooner pictured in this long-ago photo) has been with Phoenix Fire since 1986 and a captain since 2004.
He also is a certified police officer, which enabled him to serve in New York City after the World Trade Center attacks and in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Captain Nelson was honored for his body of work. However, his supervisor, arson chief Jack Ballentine, listed three specific investigations in nominating him for the honor.
One of the biggies was the tragic case of the late firefighter Bret Tarver, who died in March 2001 after he was trapped in a huge fire at the Southwest Supermarket at 35th Avenue and McDowell Road.
The case languished for years, until Captain Nelson reopened it, investigated it relentlessly, and identified a U.S. Army solider, Chris Benitez, as the alleged arsonist.
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Benitez was arrested last July and is in the county jail in lieu of $3 million bond. He is charged with felony murder (which could mean a life sentence for the 26-year-old) and arson.
According to Ballentine, Captain Nelson "has consistently operated as an investigator in a manner that exceeds all expectations."
We also know Nelson as a big-hearted guy who is the epitome of a public servant.