HAMILTON—She doesn’t recognize the man standing on her darkened porch.
He is so badly burned it’s a miracle he’s alive.
Then he speaks.
Carla is still in there. Call 911.
Before he collapses, Alan Rutherford has one more thing to say. His dying words, as it turns out.
It was Rich. He did it for the money.
In recreating the night of the fire that killed Alan and Carla Rutherford, the search for a suspect in their deaths and the ripple effects the fire and the killings had on others, the Hamilton Spectator spent months speaking to multiple sources with knowledge of the family and the case, along with experts.
Some sources are confidential because they fear reprisal.
The Spectator independently verified all details.
The Spectator has also examined public financial, property, court and employment records and sifted through social media posts.
Members of Alan and Carla’s family declined to speak to the Spectator for this story.
Al and Carla Rutherford had worked together in a lab at Hamilton Health Sciences.
Each was married before and had two adult children. Carla had boys. Richard Taylor, an elementary school teacher, is the oldest. Chris Taylor is a chiropractor. Al had girls, Allison Plato and Amelia Ryan.
Al and Carla married in the spring of 2007. Al moved into Carla’s modest single-storey house on quiet Greening Court in Dundas. The mortgage was paid off that year, according to property records.
It was the house Carla bought with her first husband in 1981. This was where she raised her sons.
They were long-standing members of the Royal Hamilton Yacht Club and loved to travel, including trips to Egypt and Mexico, according to their social media accounts.
They doted on their two Labrador retrievers, Cara and Cody, taking them for long walks beyond the eight single-storey homes on their court. It is a family-oriented neighbourhood with mature trees and well-kept gardens, where everyone says hello to each other.
Carla, 64, was a talented quilt maker who read murder mysteries and decorated the house for special occasions like Mardi Gras and Christmas. She adored their four young grandchildren, two from each of her boys.
Al, 63, was a fitness buff who ran races and cycled. He took good care of the neighbourhood, shovelling driveways and mowing lawns on the friendly little court, according to neighbours.
The Rutherfords liked to be around people and were well loved. They were fun. Once, they elaborately dressed as pirates for a costume party. Another time, they went as a cowboy and saloon girl.
They enjoyed entertaining friends — and especially their family — in their backyard, which had a pool and backed on to scenic Grove Cemetery.
They seemed to have a comfortable life.
July 8 was a sweltering Sunday night in the midst of a heatwave.
The previous week had been a good one for Carla and Al.
Four days earlier, Rich’s little ones had been there, splashing in the pool. Carla posted photos of the fun on Instagram. It was exactly the way summer vacation was supposed to be for kids.
Before they turned in for the night, Carla and Al left dirty dishes on the kitchen counter to be done later. They put the dogs in their crates in the basement. Then they crawled into the bed they shared in their small bedroom at the back of the house.
Hours later, about 3:30 a.m. on July 9, their bedroom erupted in fire.
Smoke and flames quickly filled the bedroom before breaking through the roof and stretching above the treetops. The raging inferno ate a hole through the bedroom floor.
Al scrambled out of bed and somehow managed to get outside.
He tried to go back in for Carla, and the dogs crated in the basement. He couldn’t get to them.
In the dark, he made his way to his next-door neighbour’s front porch. He pounded on the door, police have said.
When the neighbour answered, she didn’t know it was Al.
He had burns to 80 per cent of his body and was dripping blood.
“Melting,” was how one witness described him.
Carla is still inside the house, Al told the neighbour. Call 911.
He then said that one astounding thing:
It was Rich. He did it for the money.
Police and firefighters arrived within six minutes. Emergency Medical Services weren’t far behind.
Neighbours began spilling out of their homes in their pyjamas.
Police, told that Carla was trapped in the bedroom, tried to go in. But the fire was just too intense.
Firefighters went straight into the heart of the blaze to pull her body out before the roof collapsed. They tried to save her on the front lawn, but it was too late. Carla was dead.
Fire crews worked fast to prevent the flames from spreading to other homes.
In all, about 35 firefighters and 11 vehicles responded to the scene. When the roof collapsed, firefighters were forced to fight the blaze from outside, using an aerial truck. It took 40 minutes to get the fire under control.
At some point, firefighters rescued the dogs from the basement. They were taken in by a neighbour.
House fires are among the most hectic scenes paramedics deal with, says Supt. Dave Thompson of the Hamilton Paramedic Service.
“It’s controlled chaos,” Thompson says.
“Smoke billowing, flames billowing out of the house. You can feel the heat from great distances. People may be frantically screaming for help … It’s loud. It’s overwhelming. Communication becomes difficult.”
The potential for multiple patients is always there, he says.
Unlike a car crash, where most onlookers are usually strangers, a house fire affects a neighbourhood. Those gathered know the victims. Greening Court residents watched as the body of Carla was wheeled to one of three waiting ambulances and taken to the morgue.
Another ambulance took Al to Hamilton General Hospital, where a trauma team that included surgeons and burn specialists waited.
The last ambulance was on standby should any first responder or bystander need treatment.
The paramedics included those trained in advanced care. They were called to the scene because of the obvious severity of the Rutherfords’ injuries.
One person was dead, another dying. It was immediately clear the fire was suspicious, police said. This was in part because there was no obvious source for such a powerful blaze. A police commander called in homicide detectives.
It was case manager Det. Sgt. Steve Bereziuk’s night on call. He quickly phoned each of Al and Carla’s four children to break the news. Usually, detectives do notifications in person, but time was of the essence if the family wanted to make it to Al’s bedside.
That afternoon Al died, with family by his side.
Death by fire is particularly horrendous.
An autopsy showed Carla’s cause of death was smoke inhalation. For Al, it was burns, the Spectator has learned.
Treating someone as severely burned as Al is complicated and often futile.
Surviving burns like Al’s is possible, but rare, Thompson says.
First, paramedics would have to intubate.
“Breathing in hot poison causes airways to become swollen,” he explains. “You’re suffocating.”
Dr. Chitra Rao, a retired forensic pathologist who has worked on 380 homicides — including some of Hamilton’s highest-profile cases — says someone who dies inside a burning house would first suffer from breathing difficulties as the larynx is charred and the lungs fill with soot. They would have a tremendous headache. After that, they would lose consciousness.
Then there is pain management. A burn victim’s pain level is two to three times higher than other sorts of pain.
“There are lots of nerves under your skin,” says Rao.
Those who make it out of a fire, as Al did, might be fuelled by adrenalin, she says, which pushes them to keep going even as their body gives out. It might also be a testament to their overall fitness level.
“Al was nothing short of heroic. He was unbelievable. He was one tough, tough man,” Bereziuk said in a July interview with the Spectator.
Even if one were to survive long enough to escape, the shock of the injuries could be fatal. So can the burns to the airways. And, if the victim lives long enough, there is potential for life-threatening infection of the burns.
“It’s a terrible death and it’s so painful,” Rao says.
Fire destroys evidence. But it also leaves it.
With any fatal fire in Ontario, the Office of the Fire Marshal (OFM) is called to investigate.
Its mandate is to determine the origin and cause of the fire and when there has been a crime, share that information with police.
Fire investigators and Hamilton Police forensics officers spent four days examining the 8 Greening Ct. house. They first had to lay down a temporary floor to replace the one that burned away, police have said.
“Normally, people get out of their houses,” says J.M. Williams, executive director of the Canadian Association of Fire Investigators. The question asked in every fatal fire investigation: “Why didn’t these people get out?”
Williams is an OFM investigator, but wasn’t involved with the Rutherford fire and did not comment directly about the case.
In Ontario between 2007 and 2016, there were 762 fatal fires, according to the OFM. Of those, 142 — about 19 per cent — were intentional, including suicides and homicides.
Between 2013 and 2017, there were 44 homicides in Canada where the method used to kill was fire, according to Statistics Canada. This represents just 1.5 per cent of the more than 2,900 homicides during that time.
Fire investigators start by determining the fire’s “origin.” Depending on the level of damage, that might mean a specific area or a quadrant in a room.
“It comes down to basic fire science. Heat, fuel and oxygen come together,” Williams says.
This part of the investigation includes fire pattern analysis and witness statements. Once they know where the fire began, they look for the “ignition sequence.” This is the chain of events involving fuel, the heat and the circumstances that led to the fire.
Analysis is done to determine how a fire spreads through an area based on the ignition temperature of various items in its path and what is fuelling the blaze.
For instance, what were the Rutherfords’ bedsheets made of and how fast would they burn? Some fabrics burn faster than others.
Fire investigators collect exhibits to be sent for forensic testing to learn what fuels were at the scene. They can test for volatile ignitable liquids, hydrocarbon gases, mineral or cooking oils.
They also attend autopsies to observe fire patterns on victims’ bodies.
Once fire investigators have collected and analyzed evidence, they may develop hypotheses about the origin and cause, then they test them by recreating the fire scene in real life or with a computer program.
Solids do not burn, but when heat is applied ignitable vapours are released and that is what burns. This takes time. So a fire that burns very big and very fast may indicate the fire was fuelled by something.
“A rapidly developing fire may indicate that we have a fuel in a vapour form,” Williams says.
What was the fuel used to start the Greening Court fire and how did it get there?
When the sun came up Monday, after the fire was out, the house appeared almost untouched at first glance.
On closer examination, though, the roofline was marred by a hole at the back of the house.
Photographs taken inside the wreckage by work crews showed the bedroom was destroyed. The fire burned so hot, it melded together coins saved in a tin box. Nothing was left of Carla and Al’s bed except for a metal frame. The bedroom window was shattered.
Yet, their two cars in the driveway were untouched. The garden still bloomed. A barbecue and its propane tank were in good condition. Canvas camping chairs and a gazebo in the backyard were fine.
Shoes were still lined up inside the front door.
Even some family photos, Al’s model airplanes and Carla’s beautiful quilts were salvageable. In fact, when the couple’s four children were finally allowed in the home, that’s what they took as keepsakes, police said.
Four days after the fire, Bereziuk called a news conference at police headquarters.
He officially announced the fire was deliberately set and detectives were conducting a double homicide investigation. Someone was out to get the Rutherfords, he said.
“These were innocent victims who would have suffered sheer terror,” Bereziuk told the journalists.
When asked about suspects, he said: “The route, naturally, is to look at people closest to the family.”
The family was being co-operative, he added.
After investigators were finished with the scene, it was turned over to an insurance company. In September, a demolition crew tore down the remains of the house.
When the walls started coming down, grieving neighbours gathered to watch, drink wine and weep. It was an intimate and impromptu wake for their friends, weeks after the Rutherfords’ funerals.
At the end, after heavy equipment had piled up mounds of debris, the last vestiges of the Rutherfords’ life could be found among the rubble: The “8” address number from the front of their house; a Singer sewing machine; a red toolbox full of tools.
And a metal fireproof safe.
A worker noticed the box poking out of the rubble and climbed down from his machine to take a look.
Inside the box, he found a stack of papers.
It was a will. And Carla’s son Rich Taylor was the executor.