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.

Two weeks later, according to the complaint, Hodgeman phoned the St. Louis County Sheriff's Department and told arson investigator Steve Skogman that he felt responsible for the Hibbing fires. He was drunk at the time and didn't remember for sure, he told Skogman, but it sounded like something he would do. He wanted to set things right and get on with his life, he said, adding that when he is under a lot of stress, he drinks, and starts fires.

When McKenna got a call in mid-January from the Hibbing Police Department asking for background on Douglas Hodgeman, he was dumbstruck. "I thought, 'Oh no, not again,'" the sergeant recalls. "These guys are unbelievable."

By early May, McKenna felt he finally had a case against Douglas Hodgeman. Though he was unable to locate Loretta Potter or the "Roxie" Michael Hodgeman had mentioned, he had tracked down many of the other key witnesses in the case, including Kelly Reynolds. On May 8 police arrested Douglas Hodgeman at his home in Plymouth and charged him with first-degree arson in the East 21st Street fire. Unable to raise the $50,000 bail, Hodgeman remains in jail awaiting trial. Court proceedings are scheduled to begin next month. "I was there," Hodgeman admitted to McKenna in his last interview at the Hennepin County Jail on May 10. "But I am innocent. Michael started the fire and I handed him the lighter." (Hodgeman has also been charged with first-degree arson in the Hibbing case, but at McKenna's request, authorities there agreed to suspend criminal proceedings until after the Hennepin County trial.)

Christopher Ching

Citing office policy, prosecutor Steve Redding declined to comment about the case before trial. But Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman believes his office has a strong and triable case. "Two young girls were seriously injured four years ago," Freeman asserts. "We have one of our top prosecutors on the case. The community can rest assured that we will prosecute this case to the fullest extent of the law."

Evan Rosen, Douglas Hodgeman's public defender, did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment for this story.

Having agreed to testify against his younger brother, Michael Hodgeman, who is serving a 366-day work-release sentence for the Burnsville arson, has been granted immunity in the East 21st Street case. Still, McKenna believes both brothers are culpable for the fire that nearly killed Cissy Cannon and says he feels there's a small possibility that Michael Hodgeman, and not his brother, started the blaze. "These guys are crazy," the arson investigator says. "Neither of them knows how to tell the truth."

The vacant lot on East 21st Street is dotted with dandelions and doesn't hint of the homes that once stood there. Four years after the fire that destroyed the building, there are no breaks in the grass to indicate a foundation, no charred scraps of wood, nothing to suggest the structure that once stood here or the blaze that gutted it.

Landlord Charles Mesken, who bought the apartment building in 1964, says he knew the Hodgeman brothers had a predilection for fire but never guessed that one of them might have been responsible for the blaze that destroyed his property. "It was always a smoldering chair or something--they never wanted it to get far, out of control," he notes. "I guess there are certain people who settle fights in different ways--shoot someone or burn their place down."

After the fire, Kelly Alvarado and Evelyn Van Wagner sued Mesken on the grounds that the building was equipped with no window or other escape route from the bedroom where the two girls were sleeping on the night of the fire. The lawsuit was settled out of court last year. A representative from Stan Copouls Services in Richfield refused to comment about the matter, but Alvarado says Mesken's insurance company paid $500,000 in her daughter's case, of which she received about $150,000 after medical costs and attorneys' fees. (Van Wagner did not want to comment about the terms of her settlement.)

Sareen Sandhu was a friend of the Hodgemans for years, but she says she wasn't surprised at the charges against Douglas, who she'd suspected set the subsequent fire at her house. "They were trouble," Sandhu asserts. "If there was a fire, it was always weird how they'd be nearby. We used to party together a lot, but after a while we started seeing them less and less, especially after the question of the fire at our house came up. We never knew if it was them or not."

Other neighbors who knew the Hodgemans when they were growing up speak highly of their parents, describing Susan and William Hodgeman as responsible and decent. But William Hodgeman, Sr., had a history with police: In 1980 he was convicted of sexually touching a 7-year-old neighborhood girl. According to court records, Hodgeman's eldest son, William Jr., witnessed the incident; Susan Hodgeman told police at the time that her husband had previously molested their daughter. His 21-month sentence was stayed; he was given 10 years' probation and ordered to undergo treatment for chemical dependency.

After Hodgeman died of a heart attack in 1986, Susan raised her children alone, supporting the family by cleaning apartments. She describes Douglas as a talented mechanic, a hard worker, and a decent father who is about to be married. "They are no trouble and are good kids. They are good with me," she says of her sons.

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