Wake County

Police asked for Google data in a hunt for the cause of the 2017 downtown Raleigh fire

Police detectives, looking for clues to the origin of the giant downtown Raleigh fire last March, asked Google for data about any devices using its software that might have been in the area before the blaze.

But they came up empty, according to a search warrant turned in to the court clerk’s office on Wednesday.

The warrant application was submitted by Detective Brad Winston for Superior Court Judge Paul C. Ridgeway to sign last May 5. It suggests that police had suspicions about one or more people with Google accounts in the block where the fire happened between 7:30 and 10 p.m. the night of the fire.

The fire was reported at the site of the Metropolitan apartment building, which was under construction, about 10 p.m. March 16, 2017. The last contractor working on the site, which burned through the night, left about 7:30 p.m., Winston said.

Police policy is not to discuss search warrants, and the returned warrant is marked to show that Google did not have any information that fit the conditions in Winston’s request.

It was unclear why the warrant was not returned until this week.

The application said there was “probable cause to believe [that] evidence of the commission of the crime of the ‘burning of [a] building or structure in the process of construction’ ” would be in the requested data.

A process laid out in the search warrant called for police to get anonymous data showing what devices were in the Metropolitan block in the specified hours, and what kinds of Google accounts were on those devices.

The block, established by GPS coordinates and marked on a map included in the warrant application, was bounded by West Lane Street, North Harrington Street, West Jones Street and a line drawn a little west of North Dawson Street.

Police planned to narrow any data provided by Google and then ask the company for information identifying account holders who police thought were relevant.

Some of the language in the warrant suggests police may have had some information that made them think the fire was set.

“Law enforcement officers will attempt to narrow down the list by reviewing the time-stamped location coordinates for each account and comparing that against the known time and location information that is specific to this crime,” Winston wrote.

Only Google named in warrant

The warrant applied only to Google.

There is no way to know from the single warrant made public whether police made similar demands of other service providers or chose Google alone.

The warrant included a provision forbidding Google to tell account holders for 90 days whether their information had been turned over to police.

After the five-alarm fire was put out the morning after it began, Raleigh police and fire investigators and a field team from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives combed the site and the area around it for weeks.

No agency has said publicly whether the fire was arson or an accident.

The Metropolitan was in a construction stage in which several stories of wooden framing had been erected atop the building’s concrete podium and no fireproofing or sprinkler installation had yet been added.

Almost every piece of wood burned, and the concrete underpinning was stressed by the heat and had to be demolished and rebuilt.

In addition to destroying the Metropolitan, the intense blaze damaged adjacent buildings with smoke and heat. Hundreds of tenants had to leave their residences.

The Link Apartments Glenwood South reopened this week. The 15-story Quorum Center, which has offices and residential condominiums, might not reopen until 2019.