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.

These, he found, had fattened considerably in the years since the fire. Wherever the Hodgeman brothers went, fire seemed to follow. Over the previous 10 years, during much of which time the brothers had lived with their mother in a series of residences in South Minneapolis, a total of 36 suspicious fires had started in the vicinity--including nine at their own addresses. Sometimes the fires were caused by a Molotov cocktail thrown through a window. Other times it was furniture or some other object set ablaze in a car or truck. And in an eerie similarity to the 21st Street fire that had injured Cissy Cannon and Lacey Van Wagner, in at least three instances furniture or a mattress had been set alight on a porch.

In one of those cases, in December 1995, someone had set fire to a box-spring mattress outside 2205 Chicago Ave., where Henry Steward and Sareen Sandhu--at whose apartment the Hodgeman brothers had been playing cards on the night of the 21st Street fire--lived with their two children. Sandhu told police that at 3 a.m. Douglas Hodgeman had appeared at their door and told them about the fire. Hodgeman was wearing a red jacket bearing the words "Fire Safety," Sandhu said. She and Steward suspected he had set the fire because they had accused him of stealing some tools earlier that day, she added. Owing to the lack of physical evidence or an eyewitness, police were unable to make an arrest.

One night about four months later, Kathy Mishow, another South Minneapolis resident, heard a loud boom and looked outside to see a man in a black shirt and black pants running away from the home of her neighbor Anthony Holmes. His garage, she noticed, was on fire. Holmes later told police that he was a longtime friend of the Hodgeman brothers and had often hired Douglas to do odd jobs around his house, as had been the case that day. That wouldn't have been enough to make a case against Hodgeman. But an hour after Mishow spotted the fire, a physician at nearby Abbott Northwestern Hospital called police and told them a man had been admitted for treatment of burns on his lower legs. His name: Douglas Hodgeman. Identified by the witness, Hodgeman was convicted of first-degree arson and spent eight months in the Hennepin County workhouse, received 10 years' probation, and was ordered to pay Holmes restitution of $50 per month for the next 10 years.

In all, McKenna now says, Michael had been a suspect in nine fires, Douglas in six, and the third brother, William, in six. In three fires, more than one brother was listed as a suspect. Twelve other fires didn't name them as suspects but were a match for what seemed to be the brothers' pattern of behavior.

"Their typical m.o. is to avenge a slight or an imagined slight by setting a piece of furniture or a mattress on fire outside a house," the investigator says. "Alcohol usually plays a role. Wherever they live, there is a string of fires."

William Hodgeman, Jr., who has not been arrested since his release from the workhouse in 1991, says he has cleaned up his act. Having earned his GED, he now works as a welder and lives with his 4-year-old daughter at his mother's home on Cedar Avenue in South Minneapolis. "I was young, dumb, and stupid," Hodgeman says of his past conviction. "I paid my time for it and learned my lesson. I know how serious it is now. I got my act together." Regarding the one case since his release in which he was listed by police as a suspect, Hodgeman repeats that he learned his lesson at the workhouse.

Investigators have long been aware of the brothers' affinity for fire, but in the majority of cases weren't able to gather enough evidence to charge them, says McKenna. In December 1995, he adds, Michael and Douglas Hodgeman were under police surveillance after a rash of fires in their neighborhood. The surveillance had turned up nothing.

"It's frustrating," the sergeant says. "You work really hard investigating these fires and you can't put a dent in them. Most of the time you know who did it--it's proving it that's the problem.

"We clean up the pieces after the fact," McKenna goes on. "It's hard to be proactive. You can watch and wait and still come up with nothing."

After his 1996 arrest, Douglas Hodgeman was questioned about the 21st Street fire. According to McKenna, he told investigators he knew nothing about it.

This past November 7, McKenna went to the Dakota County Jail to interview Michael Hodgeman. Michael told him that not long after the 21st Street blaze, he and Douglas had been playing basketball in the park when his brother confessed he'd set the fire. "He didn't give me a reason for doing it," Hodgeman told McKenna, according to court documents. "Maybe it was this wannabe gang thing. He was always starting arguments and fights. He is a person that will go up and start something. And he didn't like the people upstairs."

Two weeks later McKenna questioned Douglas Hodgeman, who denied his brother's accusations, according to court documents. On the night of the fire, after finding himself locked out of his mother's house, he'd returned immediately to Sandhu and Steward's apartment, he insisted; he hadn't gone to 813 E. 21st St. at all that night. It had been Michael who noticed the fire, he added, not him. When McKenna suggested he submit to a polygraph test, Hodgeman agreed, but he never took one.

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