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.

"It's a power thing," Novak says. "There's power in fire. You set one and all of a sudden you have the entire fire department at your disposal."

Novak recalls a serial arsonist who started more than 100 fires in the metro area because his application was rejected by the fire department. He says that often the arsonist himself calls in to report the very fire he set, or tries to help extinguish it. "They want to be in the middle of it," the investigator explains. "They want to look like heroes."

The Federal Bureau of Investigation published a 1990 report titled "The Firesetter: A Psychological Profile," which divides arsonists into two groups: "motivational," which includes those who set fires for spite, revenge, or gain; and "motiveless," those who are driven by an irresistible impulse and derive a sensual satisfaction from the act. A member of the latter group may not be entirely aware of the sensual aspect, according to the report; he's likely to view the act as revenge or retaliation. Some "motiveless" arsonists are further classified as "pathological," in that they set fires as an act of aggression or hostility to relieve psychological stress or emotional tension, inflate a low sense of worth, and provide excitement.

Christopher Ching

The FBI report describes the typical arsonist as having grown up in an impoverished, disruptive, broken, mother-dominated home. Among the cases studied, the researchers also found psychological and emotional problems including paranoia, insecurity, and instability leading to sexual perversion, alcoholism, and criminal acts.

Dr. Eric Hollander, professor of psychiatry and director of the Compulsive, Impulsive, and Anxiety Disorder Program at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City, classifies pyromania as an impulse-control disorder, a group of mental disorders that includes compulsive gambling and sexual addiction. "Pyromaniacs get excited, sexually aroused, and gratified setting fires," says Hollander. "They feel alive--it's an erotic act.

"These people need to set fires to relieve the tension building in them," the psychiatrist continues. "Once the flame is lit, it is accompanied by a calm feeling of relief." Hollander adds that there's a high correlation between past sexual abuse and impulse-control disorders.

Pyromaniacs represented 60 percent of the 600 arsonists examined by psychologists Nolan D.C. Lewis and Helen Yarnell in their highly regarded 1955 book on serial arsonists, Pathological Firesetting (Pyromania). Lewis and Yarnell describe serial arsonists this way: "These are mysterious firebugs who terrorize neighborhoods by going on solitary firesetting sprees, often nocturnal, during which they touch off trash fires without regard to whose property is endangered.... These offenders offered no special reason or persistent interest beyond the fact that something within them forced them to set the fires."

According to Hollander, there's a strong genetic component to impulse-control disorders. "It is not unusual or surprising to see numerous members of the same family with this disorder or other manifestations of it."

Sean McKenna was the only Minneapolis Police Department patrol sergeant in the precinct on duty on the night of the fire at 813 E. 21st St., and four years later he vividly remembers the blaze. "It was completely out of control," recalls the 13-year veteran of the force, who joined the Arson and Bomb Unit last year. "At one point the fire department sounded six air horns signaling the firefighters to leave the building because it was hopeless. It was eerie."

The athletic, soft-spoken, 38-year-old sergeant, who moonlights with the St. Louis Park Fire Department, candidly admits that most arsons he's called on to investigate are destined not to be solved. In fact, 90 percent of the arsons assigned to his unit don't result in a conviction. Files neatly stacked on his desk are packed with the minute details of unsolved blazes involving everything from automobiles to apartment houses, trailers to trash cans. Unlike homicides and rapes, McKenna notes, fires don't often yield much in the way of clues. "Arson is a crime usually done alone, under the cover of darkness, with few witnesses," says the sergeant. "And fire wipes out any evidence there was. We often have to wait for a break in arson cases."

More than three years after the 21st Street fire, McKenna got just such a break, in the form of a phone call from police in Burnsville. This past October, someone had set fire to a piece of carpeting in the stairwell of an apartment building there. Under police questioning, a suspect had admitted he'd set the fire in order to spite a landlord who had evicted his girlfriend for making too much noise. But there was more, the Burnsville investigators told McKenna: Hoping to make a dent in a probable 48-month prison term, the suspect had offered to supply information about prior fires in Minneapolis. Specifically, he claimed to know about two vehicle fires, a dumpster fire, and a March 1994 fire that destroyed an apartment building at 813 E. 21st St.

The eager informant's name: Michael Hodgeman.

McKenna was elated. "I remembered that smoky, ugly mess and what it did to those girls," he says. "I was happy that finally it would be able to move forward."

The East 21st Street fire hadn't previously been McKenna's case, but now he was assigned to it. He downloaded the dormant file, retrieved the photos of the burned building from police archives, and read through the voluminous interviews his predecessors had conducted with witnesses. After reviewing what he had on file, he began trying to track down the witnesses to see if he could pry loose any additional information, given the new development. He also updated the criminal histories of Douglas and Michael Hodgeman.

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