Officers at the Serangoon Neighbourhood Police Centre (NPC) knew they had a serial offender on their hands, when they received a string of complaints about fire at the central rubbish chute of an HDB block.
The culprit had been setting trash on fire before dumping the items down the chute in his flat, and they needed to nab him fast before someone got hurt.
It took a three-hour stakeout by a team of officers, some door-knocking and digging through the trash to arrest the culprit, a man in his 40s.
A resident living at Block 108 in Serangoon North first reported the problem on July 27.
Over a 10-day period, more than five other reports were lodged, said officers at Serangoon NPC.
Senior Staff Sergeant Raymond Teo, 32, was part of the Crime Strike Force Team in Serangoon NPC that conducted a stakeout on Aug 6 to crack the case.
He was observing the rubbish chute from his car when he saw smoke coming out from it.
He alerted Senior Staff Sgt Sanjit S/O Shanta Ram, 32, who was stationed at the opposite block.
Acting fast, they approached two units in the block where movement was spotted. They hit the jackpot at one of the units, which emitted a burnt scent.
A man in his 40s let the officers in, looking nervous and avoiding eye contact.
The officers noticed brown stains resembling burnt marks around the flat's rubbish chute. But when questioned, he denied any wrongdoing.
The officers then requested to check the rubbish chute hopper in his unit.
They found part of a drink sachet wedged in the hopper's cover.
A trip down to the central rubbish chute on the first floor yielded the missing pieces of the puzzle.
Senior Staff Sgt Teo discovered remnants of burnt bandage and a drink sachet, matching those found in the man's kitchen.
The final clue that convinced them they had the right man was a partially burnt page of The Straits Times newspaper that they also found at the first floor's rubbish collection point.
The page matched the set of newspapers lying in the man's home.
The suspect was arrested on the same day, and later charged with mischief by fire. He was fined $1,500.
The police said his actions were borne out of mischief, and that he could have been jailed up to seven years.
The entire operation took about three hours.
Senior Staff Sgt Teo said that in his eight years of being in the police force, this was the first case which required him to dig through an HDB block's rubbish bin to find evidence.
Despite the unbearable stench of smoke mixed with trash, he stuck his head and right arm into the chute.
He said: "As a police officer, the safety of the residents is important.
"I wanted to get the culprit and find more evidence to pin him down."
Still, nailing the right person was challenging due to a few factors.
First, the crime was committed within the privacy of a resident's home, hence there was a lack of surveillance footage.
Second, the burnt items were also charred beyond recognition, which made tracing their owner virtually impossible.
Commanding officer of Serangoon NPC, Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Allan Yue said: "These cases of mischief by fire were particularly difficult because there was a lack of eyewitnesses and CCTV leads for the officers to work on."
Keen eyes, persistence in mounting an ambush, and a swift response helped the officers solve the case, said DSP Yue.
The police said mischief by fire is a serious offence that can cause damage to property and inflict serious injuries which may even lead to death.
This article was first published on Nov 4, 2014.
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