Playing With Fire

Even as they began sifting through the cinders in 1994, police figured they knew who set the Phillips apartment fire that nearly killed two little girls. But arson has a way of destroying all the evidence.

Shivering in her bathrobe, Kay Englund watched as nearly 50 firefighters battled the 3-alarm blaze that was quickly consuming her home. "It happened so fast," she recalls today. "In no time the whole building was on fire. It was awful to watch."

Christopher Ching

Sgt. Sean McKenna, now a member of the Minneapolis Police Department's arson unit, also vividly remembers the March 13, 1994, fire; a patrol sergeant in those days, he was summoned to the scene. "It went up like a bomb," says the arson investigator. "It started on the back porch, but the wood was so dry it quickly spread to the roof and the rest of the building."

As the inferno lit the dark sky, firefighters attempted to make their way into the building but falling beams and cinder held them at bay. When they were able to rescue Cissy Cannon and Lacey Van Wagner and administer first aid, Lacey was gasping for air and Cissy wasn't breathing at all. Both girls were rushed to the hospital, where they were treated for smoke inhalation and second- and third-degree burns.

Almost two hours later, as landlord Charles Mesken and the Red Cross worked to find beds for the homeless and police questioned witnesses, firefighters finally contained the blaze. By then charred personal belongings were strewn everywhere, Loretta Potter's Aerostar and a second van were destroyed, and 813 E. 21st St. was a smoldering shell.

Lacey Van Wagner was hospitalized for a month with burns on her legs. Her friend Cissy Cannon was in even worse shape. When she was brought to Hennepin County Medical Center, the doctors predicted Cissy wouldn't live. Besides the second- and third-degree burns on her arms and legs, one-third of her brain had been destroyed owing to lack of oxygen. She remained in a vegetative state for six months and over the next four years she would undergo multiple skin grafts as well as spine surgeries to counter uneven physical growth caused by the brain damage.

Suspecting arson, Minneapolis fire officials turned over the case to police. A preliminary investigation revealed that the fire started when a mattress was set afire on the back porch. Apparently, no chemical agents had been used. At first the investigators seized upon the quarrel between Cheryl Partlow and Kenny Hollingsworth that had awakened the neighbors; they also heard stories of an allegedly vengeful cousin of Loretta Potter's husband.

And then there were the two men neighbor Kelly Reynolds said she'd seen on the stairs outside Kay Englund's door not long before the fire broke out. Reynolds was able to give police a pretty clear description: Both of the men were about 27 years old, of medium build, and close to 6 feet tall. One had short brown hair and was wearing a dark baseball cap and blue coveralls, she recalled; the other had long light-brown hair and a mustache and beard, and was wearing jeans and a white sweatshirt with the word "Georgetown" stenciled on it in red and blue. Additionally, Stacie Luoma, who lived in the same building as the Hodgemans, had seen them earlier that evening in the hallway. She told police that Douglas Hodgeman had been wearing dark-green or blue matching shirt and pants and Mike was wearing jeans and a gray or white jacket or T-shirt with "Georgetown" on it. Sareen Sandhu and Henry Steward gave police the same description. While Luoma said neither of the brothers had a beard, Jonathan Englund recalled that both his cousins had sported a few days' stubble.

Douglas Hodgeman told police that on the night of the fire he was wearing a dark-green short-sleeve shirt and pants. He said he couldn't remember whether he was wearing a hat. He described his brother's clothing as a sport shirt, green jeans, and a Georgetown University jacket; Michael agreed that was what he'd worn.

Even more significantly, police background checks on the Hodgeman brothers revealed that they had been suspects in six previous fires around the neighborhood and were well-known to the precinct officers. A third Hodgeman brother, William, had served almost a year in the Hennepin County workhouse after being charged with first-degree arson for setting fire to a house in 1990.

Still, investigators didn't have sufficient evidence to justify arresting the Hodgemans. The fact that Reynolds's description appeared to match the brothers wasn't nearly enough to overcome the 10-minute gap between the time she'd seen them and the time investigators determined that the fire had been set. A case built on such circumstantial evidence would never stand up in court.

None of the other leads panned out. Cheryl Partlow and Kenny Hollingsworth moved away. So did Loretta Potter. So did Kelly Alvarado, who moved her family to Southern California a year later to join her husband. Investigators entered information about the case into the police department's computer system, where it joined other open and unsolved arsons, and where it would languish for the next three years.

The typical serial arsonist is a male between the ages of 16 and 30, a poor student with weak social skills who tends to start fires around his own neighborhood at night in order to retaliate against real or imagined slights, explains Jamie Novak, an investigator for the St. Paul Fire Department.

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