Fanning The Flames: Unlocking The Truth Looks Into Michael Politte's Supposed Fire Fixation

The show’s investigators found police may have exaggerated the issue

When it comes to Michael Politte’s supposed pyromania, Unlocking The Truth investigators had reason to believe on tonight’s episode that the courts fueled the fire.

Politte, who’s been in jail since 1998 for the second-degree murder of his mother Rita, wound up in prison largely because of the notion that he was a fire-obsessed teenager. As his mother’s bludgeoned body was found burned beyond recognition, police maintained suspicions Michael was responsible, but Ryan Ferguson and Eva Nagao spoke to Rita’s ex-boyfriend Derek, who insisted police embellished Michael’s fire fascination and consequent villainy.

Derek explained that he and Rita dated on and off in 1998, and that Michael — who took his parents’ divorce personally — was not Derek’s biggest fan. Having watched his own parents’ sort through a separation, Derek understood why Michael might have wanted to keep his distance.

One night at dinner, Derek noticed Michael was enthralled with his lighter and would flick it against the couch for his own amusement. This small anecdote eventually became the origin of the fire-obsessed narrative police applied to Michael, but Derek is still confused as to how — as far as he was concerned, Michael was just like any other kid who thought fires were cool.

Paul Bieber, who served as a firefighter for 15 years and remains a fire and explosions expert, has testified on the topic of arson science in hundreds of cases; he told Ferguson and Nagao that connections police drew between Michael’s fire fixation and the evidence plucked from Rita’s crime scene seemed forced. Police argued that gasoline they found on the floor of Rita’s bedroom — where her body was found burned — matched a fuel that search dogs discovered on Michael’s shoes.

The problem, Bieber noted, is that a crime lab eventually determined the two samples were a false match and that the agent suspected to be gasoline on Michael’s shoe was actually a part of the shoe itself. If a person had been searching for gasoline, though, they would have of course seen it, Bieber said.

Further, Bieber argued that — even with modern technology — it is a myth that an investigator can say with certainty whether a specific fuel was or was not used at a crime scene. Twenty years ago, the supposed science held even less credence. Bieber argued Politte’s supposed obsession with fire functioned as a proverbial house of cards, and with these two crucial elements to the case debunked, everything should have collapsed.

After finally speaking with Michael himself, Ferguson met with Nagao and Tricia Bushnell of the Midwest Innocence project, and Bushnell decided to formally file a habeas petition, in which it will be argued that Michael’s being held by the state of Missouri unjustly. His exoneration will be sought.

Are you surprised by the latest Unlocking The Truth findings, and what do you think will happen with Michael’s case? Share your thoughts in the comments, and be sure to tune in to the Unlocking The Truth finale next Wednesday at 11/10c!