LAWRENCE — Set ablaze around 2 a.m., the three buildings burned furiously on a muggy August night.
In the shadow of the inferno, state trooper Paul Zipper saw there was a basketball court just across the street.
So starting the next day, Zipper brought his shorts to work with him, played hoops with local youngsters, and soon solved another arson in Lawrence in the early 1990s — a time known in the city as the "flaming era."
"Within a few days, I knew who lit the fires through the kids," Zipper said in a video created to document the work of the Lawrence Arson Task Force.
That case, and hundreds of others, depended on "the ability for one person to talk to another person," he said.
"People were living in areas that were getting hammered by fires. They needed to see that police were their friends," Zipper explained. "The bigger picture is the community needs to see you as a part of the community."
That mantra became the bedrock of Zipper's 34-year career as a state police fire investigator.
Zipper, 61, recently retired at the rank of captain, and has been honored with a Top Gun Award by fellow arson task force members for his career as an "investigator, teacher and leader."
A Peabody native, Zipper was assigned early on as a trooper to then-District Attorney Kevin Burke's office. He was investigating homicides, child abuse and sexual assaults. But in 1992, as arsons intensified in Lawrence, overtime shifts were offered there.
"I started doing that to make a few extra bucks," Zipper said. "I didn't even know what the Fire Marshal's Office was."
He recalled a Friday afternoon when five fires were sparked in just an hour. After one at Lowell and Oxford streets, he was involved in making an arrest on arson charges right away.
"I was good at talking to people and I worked with a really great group of people," Zipper said.
He referenced then-Fire Marshal James Kauffman, Lawrence Detective Thomas Murphy and Robert Corry, a retired state police detective lieutenant.
The task force wasn't made up only of law enforcement. All kinds of community stakeholders were pulled in to help, including the Chamber of Commerce, insurance companies, churches and more. With a bachelor's degree in media systems and management, Zipper also valued the local press and its role documenting and publicizing the task force's work.
"I always understood you were just trying to do your job," he said of news reporters.
Zipper played an "outsized role" in pulling together these groups "to join the fight," Corry wrote in an email. "Zipper was in the middle of the situation."
Kauffman, who now lives in Florida, echoed similar sentiments about Zipper in a statement regarding his Top Gun Award.
"I’m here today to tell the world that you, Paul Zipper, played a pivotal role in stopping the danger and misery suffered by so many innocent victims of arson in Lawrence – and later in your career, throughout the Commonwealth," Kaufman said.
"Paul, you brought to the Massachusetts State Fire Marshal’s Office a standard of excellence we never saw before; you brought to the State Fire Marshal’s Office a level of dedication, skill and efficiency we never experienced before; you brought to the State Fire Marshal’s Office arrest rates we never had before," he continued. "All these achievements had a profound effect on so many lives."
He said that when Zipper spoke, "people listened. When you spoke, justice prevailed."
Zipper said long before there was a focus on "community policing," the task force was embroiled in just that.
"We were doing community policing before community policing was en vogue," he said.
Investigators tried to keep the lines of communication open with people in every walk of life, he said, recalling a prostitute who tipped them off after she saw a man set fire to a building.
"It was really just being good to people and then people began to trust us," he said. "I like everyone."
Zipper repeatedly stressed that he worked as part of a team — the arson team.
"It was a multi-agency effort," he said.
During the course of his career, Zipper said he's arrested some 40 serial arsonists.
"Most of these characters will talk to you," he said. "They all have triggers."
Zipper also met his wife, Beatrice, now a retired probation officer, through his investigative work.
In addition to his undergraduate degree, he holds a master's degree in administration of justice from American University. He also has his doctorate in sociology from Northeastern University.
He now teaches about hate crimes and criminal investigations at Merrimack College and justice and criminal theory for Post University in Waterbury, Connecticut. He also has taught at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill.
Looking back on his state police career, Zipper said he is most proud of being able to work with other investigators and mentor those coming up through the ranks.
"And then see them do fantastic things. I have seen many good, young people who have gone on to have fantastic careers," he said.
He said he is displeased by the negativity and criticism being lobbed at police today.
"It's tough to see the police beat up. We also do a lot of really good things. And I'm sad the story right now is about bad policing," Zipper said. "There are a lot of really good people I worked with over the years ... I never disrespected people."
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.