GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. (CBS46) – Temperatures inside a house fire can double in seconds.
“Pretty quickly you can see how it jumped from 500 to 1,000 degrees,” said Chief Chris Coons of John’s Creek Fire Department.
Such intensity is what happened the night of February 9, 2016 when the Gwinnett home of Brent Patterson burned down, his wife Kathy and two young daughters, Kayla and Madeline, didn't escape.
Patterson’s behavior following the fire and his inconsistent accounts of what happened made him the focus of an in-depth arson investigation.
A cause of fire was never determined, and no one was ever charged. Investigators wondered which – if any story – was the truth.
So did CBS46.
In an exclusive, CBS46 obtained the case file from the Gwinnett County District Attorney. District Attorney Danny Porter said arson is one of the most difficult things to prove.
“The fire consumes the evidence. Even in this case, if there was an accelerant used, it could have been a clean accelerant and it would have burned up in the fire and there’d be no trace of it,” Porter told CBS46.
But lingering questions remain.
Patterson told investigators at least three versions of what happened. He and his family were upstairs asleep, when a popping noise woke him up.
In his first account, Patterson told investigators he went downstairs to find the living room on fire. He then, opened the door. In his second account, Patterson said he went downstairs and saw no smoke or fire. He then had a third account where he went to the front door, thinking the noise came from outside.
In each version, there was one consistency: when he stepped outside his front door, the house burst into flames behind him.
CBS46 anchor Karyn Greer suited up with John’s Creek firefighters to see if any of his accounts were plausible. Chief Chris Coons said what Patterson described is called a flashover – when a room gets so hot it ignites.
“Once the overall temperature in this room raises and those items may not be in direct contact with the flame, they will get to a certain temperature called the ignition temperature and they will spontaneously burst into flames,” he said.
Fire experts told CBS46 for that to have occurred, the living room would have been at least 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit as Patterson approached the front door.
Not possible said Metro Atlanta fire expert Nicholle Brock. Brock has nearly 20 years of firefighting experience.
“Internal temperatures are so hot you’re not even upstairs or in the next room before you open it up and introduce oxygen, which makes the boom,” she said.
Together with CBS46, Brock poured through hundreds of pages and video from the case file including investigator reports and witness statements from the yearlong investigation.
Brock said just as dangerous as a flashover, a backdraft can happen when air meets a smoldering fire and explodes. But, she said, that’s unlikely in this case too.
“There's not enough oxygen that'll make even such a small fire – causing an entire home to explode,” Brock said. “That oxygen wouldn't have done that.”
Fire investigators determined the fire started in the corner of the living room. They ruled out all accidental causes of the fire: a gas leak, electrical or appliance malfunctions, and the fireplace.
An official cause was never determined, and the case was closed.
“In the absence of definitive proof of arson, I can’t really call him a person of interest,” said Porter. “He’s clearly the only survivor of a fire that took three lives.”
Porter said even though there was doubt in Patterson’s accounts, no one could point to arson.
“It's not enough to say that's not how fire works, you have to say this was an intentionally set fire,” he said.
CBS46 and CSI Atlanta’s crime scene investigator Sheryl 'Mac' McCollum went to Patterson’s house to him about the many red flags CBS46 found in the case file.
Patterson rebuilt the exact same house on Pointer Ridge where the first burned down.
“Here’s the devastating thing is that these two children, and their mother died a horrible death,” said Mac. “This scene should have been worked like a homicide and those questions we have today shouldn’t be here. They wouldn’t be lingering.”
Patterson wasn’t home and neighbors who spoke to CBS46 said he rarely is.
“You’ve got experts in arson that can't agree on what happened. You've got a DA that cannot put this away,” said Mac. “We have our own questions - why doesn't he? I would be desperate to find out what happened.”
Porter gave CBS46 permission to re-test what remaining evidence is left, and said he’ll review the findings to see if any could get this case re-opened.