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.

In two subsequent interviews, when McKenna confronted Michael Hodgeman with his brother's denials, Michael did not back down.

Again, in late December, McKenna interviewed Douglas Hodgeman, who once more denied his brother's accusations. When McKenna asked about his conviction for burning down Anthony Holmes's garage in 1996, Douglas said, "I was drinking. I didn't care, just wanted to see it burn. That's how I looked at it at the time. But I admitted to the fires I did," he added. "I did my time and have nothing else to hide."

Douglas told McKenna that Michael was trying to shift the blame for the four-year-old fire onto him. Michael, he said, thought of him as a "piece of shit.... He just uses me as he has been doing all my life. Mike would blame me when he used to take money from Mom. I would not take the fall for him now."

A month later McKenna interviewed Michael Hodgeman a fourth time. Now the jailed arsonist changed his story. He told the sergeant that on the night of the 21st Street fire, his brother had left Steward and Sandhu's apartment for 10 minutes and returned saying he'd lit a mattress on fire. "He usually comes to me to brag," Michael added. "It was wrong of me to hold back. But I was close to him and didn't want him to get into trouble.

"I just want to get back on track," he explained to McKenna. "I'll pay the consequences for what I did. I felt badly ever since but was afraid after I found out that kid was injured. I just want to get my life back on track."

On February 20, frustrated at Michael Hodgeman's continuously changing story and feeling he was still not coming clean, McKenna went to Dakota County for yet another interview, and again Hodgeman modified his version of events. He admitted he'd been present when his brother set the fire. He told McKenna that after the card game had finished and their hosts had gone to bed, Douglas had wanted him to come along on a visit to a woman he'd formerly dated. The plan was to confront her new boyfriend. The woman was a Native American named Roxie who lived on the second floor at 813 E. 21st St., Hodgeman told the investigator.

Knowing Douglas was in a cocky, fighting mood, Michael said, he didn't want him to go alone. When they got to the apartment building, he waited on the porch downstairs while his brother knocked on the woman's door. No one answered, and they returned to Steward and Sandhu's apartment, then went back to the apartment building, where Douglas set fire to a mattress propped up against the wall on the first-floor porch. "'That will take care of them,'" Michael Hodgeman quoted Douglas as saying before the pair returned to their friends' apartment and watched the fire work its way through the mattress and spread to the dry timber of the porch. A few minutes later, Michael said, he called 911 and ran back to the site of the blaze.

"I was in half-shock," Michael told McKenna. "He kept going to the window and finally said, 'Oh, there's flames. I caused them.' I don't know if he intended to start that big of a fire. I couldn't put it past him."

Michael Hodgeman told McKenna that he was afraid of his brother, and despite the fact that he was in jail, he requested police protection. "If he's mad at somebody, he's a real rough person," he told the arson investigator. "I have no problem putting him behind bars, telling on him. It's the retaliation that scares me."

As Sean McKenna was interviewing the Hodgemans and trying to build a case, another fire broke out.

Shortly after midnight on December 2, someone set fire to a cloth in the Northern Lights banquet room of Hibbing's Kahler Hotel. The flames spread to a room divider and doors, according to a subsequent criminal complaint. At about the same time, someone unspooled a roll of toilet paper in an upstairs hallway and set it ablaze. By the time firefighters arrived, employees had already managed to extinguish the fires, but not before they'd caused $14,000 worth of damage.

According to the criminal complaint, the housekeeping staff commenced a room-to-room search to determine where the toilet paper had come from. The only room in which a roll was missing from the double dispenser was registered to two men, Scott Miller and Douglas Hodgeman, who had checked in earlier that day. Both men were employees of Radiant Air Powered Doors, a Hibbing business. (Miller was never a suspect in the fire.) The maintenance staff notified police, who searched the room and found a toilet-paper spool in the bathroom's trash can. A hotel employee told the investigators that he remembered seeing a man he identified as Douglas Hodgeman lurking in the hallway earlier, drinking Red Dog beer. Empty beer bottles were found in Hodgeman's room.

Later that morning Hibbing police confronted Douglas Hodgeman. He denied setting the fires. On December 29, arson investigators again interviewed Hodgeman, and according to the criminal complaint later filed against him, though he continued to deny setting the fires, he "indicated that he wanted to work things out and didn't want anyone else to get hurt."

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