On a Monday morning in late September, I arrived at a house in a gated subdivision in Alabama and asked for James F. Cooper, a retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. A tall, sturdy man in his 70s came to the door a few minutes later. His white hair was in a slightly overgrown crew cut; he wore athletic clothes and navy blue Crocs. “What can I do for you?” he asked, stepping outside.

I wanted to talk about an old arson case he investigated in 1992: a fatal fire at a small, one-story house in Old Hickory, Tennessee, just outside Nashville. A 24-year-old woman named Lorie Lee Lance had died in the blaze. Her boyfriend, Claude Francis Garrett, was arrested for setting the fire. He swore he was innocent. But two separate juries convicted Garrett of murder, first in 1993 and then again in 2003. Cooper was the star witness for the state.

Cooper recalled the case. He also remembered my previous attempts to reach him about it, for a story I published in 2015. The case was fairly unusual, Cooper said. As a federal agent, he did not generally work local arson cases, but he’d been called by the Nashville Metro Police Department about a suspected homicide early in the morning. It was February 24, 1992. Cooper could still describe the scene, along with most of the story told by Garrett: After a night of drinking with Lance and her stepfather at a local bar, he had awoken to the house on fire. Garrett yelled for Lance and ran with her toward the front door, he said, but she turned back toward a room at the other end of the house, where she was later found dead from smoke inhalation.


Claude Francis Garrett and Lorie Lee Lance.

Photo: Courtesy of Claude Francis Garrett

The first clue that it was arson came from Fire Marshal investigator Kenneth Porter, who noticed a strong smell of kerosene upon entering the house. Shortly afterward, he found a large kerosene container. Garrett would say the couple used a kerosene heater, a common practice in the working-class neighborhood of Hopewell. But Porter’s suspicion deepened when he found large, irregular-shaped burns on the living room floor — a “pour pattern,” as Cooper would later explain on the stand. It was a telltale sign of the use of a liquid accelerant, he said, and a hallmark of arson scenes. After Cooper took over the investigation, he found additional clues that proved it was a murder. Most damning: The door to the room where Lance was found had reportedly been locked from the outside — “that was key,” Cooper told me.

At trial in 1993, Cooper gave expert testimony to bolster the state’s theory against Garrett: that he was an abusive boyfriend who locked Lance in the back room, poured kerosene throughout the house, lit it on fire, and left her to die. The jury found him guilty and sent him to prison for life. But it would not take long for doubts to emerge. Garrett’s original conviction was overturned when he discovered that the trial prosecutor had concealed a police report in which a key witness said the back-room door had been unlocked.

The investigation into the fire was looking increasingly like a relic from another age.

More significantly, in the decade between the first trial and the retrial, the field of fire investigation had radically transformed. Old assumptions about arson and fire behavior were debunked and new investigative methods were adopted. The so-called pour patterns found at the scene would come to be regarded as junk science. By the time of Garrett’s 2003 retrial, the investigation into the fire was looking increasingly like a relic from another age, resting on techniques that had long been discarded. Nevertheless, Cooper defended his findings on the stand and the jury sent Garrett back to prison.


The one-story house in Old Hickory, Tenn., after the fire.

Photo: Courtesy of the family