Vao investigation closed without results

Joosep Värk
, reporter
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Photo: Marianne Loorents

The attention of the Estonian public was drawn to the Vao Refugee Center on September 3 of last year after the side wall of the building was set ablaze at night. Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas reacted with a flash visit to the center, while President Toomas Hendrik Ilves demanded all parliament parties condemn the incident. Both Rõivas and Interior Minister Hanno Pevkur expressed hope that the arsonists would be found quickly. That hope did not materialize, and the investigation was closed without result this week.

Active proceedings were closed already in July, while surveillance proceedings that lasted for some time after were concluded this month. Detectives could not find the trail of criminals who set fire to a building that had 70 people sleeping inside despite hearing dozens of witnesses, talking to villagers, several expert analyses, watching thousands of hours of video material, and other evidence.

Investigators established that the wall was set on fire at 4.25 a.m. using gasoline.  It remains unknown how the gasoline was transported as detectives found too little evidence at the scene of the crime; some clues pointed to a plastic canister.

The arsonists were not caught on tape despite the presence of several surveillance cameras around the building. Head of the proceedings department of the Rakvere Police Station Key Paju said while street and corridor lights provided a picture of who was where, it was impossible to determine how the perpetrators moved due to blind spots in the cameras' view. Additional cameras have now been installed to address the problem.

The criminals used these blind spots to get close to the building and set it ablaze. The moment the wall caught fire and flames rose up has been captured on camera. Investigators looked through thousands of hours of recordings from a week before and after the incident – criminals often return to the scene of the crime.

The police also ordered DNA, fingerprint, and paint analyses, while none produced results. «The fire had worked against us and destroyed a lot of the physical evidence,» Paju explained.

The investigation also looked at several thousand phone numbers that were serviced by the nearest cell tower around the time of the incident.

Paju said investigators had three theories but added she cannot go into detail as it might obstruct any potential future investigations. «Today proceedings have been closed on grounds of lack of purposefulness as we have nothing new to do add. Should a new piece of information come to light, we are prepared to reopen the case inside four years,» Paju said. The deadline is set by the fact that the crime has a five year expiry period.

Paju added that new information should be something not yet investigated: «Should new circumstances come to light, or should someone come forward and say they have knowledge of who perpetrated the crime.» In other words, all detectives can do is hope the arsonists will confess themselves or that they will hear testimony from someone with knowledge of the crime.

According to Paju, Vao villagers were very cooperative. «They were very interested in solving the arson. None of the people I talked to were negatively inclined towards residents of the refugee center,» Paju said. She added that villagers tried to establish whether the act had been committed by local people but could not find out more than the police.