The Fire Man

On the streets of northeast Minneapolis where hes lived most of his life, Alan Enger is nicknamed "Backdraft." By the time he landed in prison last year, cops think he had set up to a hundred fires in the area.

On a March evening in 2005, Alan Enger stumbled over to a squad car that was sitting in a parking lot on 23rd Street and Central Avenue Northeast. It was 9:00 p.m., well past the witching hour for the 41-year-old Enger. He smelled like a brewery. "Eh, shouldn't you guys be on patrol?" he inquired.

"Oh, we are on patrol," Officer Aaron Prescott of the nearby Second Precinct assured him.

Enger pulled a lighter out of his pocket and flicked it a few times under Prescott's nose. Then he lurched over to a nearby garage and crouched with the lighter cupped in his hand, as if he were trying to set the building on fire. He leered over his shoulder at Prescott and his partner, Richard Lillard.

The two cops followed Enger as he staggered down the alley between Central Avenue and Polk Street, paused to go through the motions of setting another garage on fire, then headed for the Polk Street duplex where he's lived all his adult life with his mother. There, he seated himself on the front steps and continued to flick his lighter at the cops.

Prescott and Lillard approached Enger and asked why he was taunting them. Enger got down on his knees. "Because I'm an alcoholic," he said. Tears welled up, and he began to sob. "I'm an alcoholic and I do stupid shit when I'm drunk."

Prescott asked how much he'd had to drink. About a 12-pack, Enger replied between sniffles.

The officers knew that Enger was usually on probation, often with the condition that he not drink. They checked with Hennepin County to see if that was presently the case, but it wasn't, so they got back in their car and left. Enger was flicking his lighter at them again by the time they turned the corner and headed toward Central Avenue.

Enger is a loner, but he's well known around Lowry and Central. He's been drinking to excess in the neighborhood since he was old enough to be served. At 6'1" and 210 pounds, he has the pugnacity and hard, lumpy demeanor of a street brawler, but he rarely wins a fight. "Let's just say he can take a pretty good punch," says Steve, a regular at Sully's bar who used to drink with him. A few other patrons nodded their agreement with Steve's assessment of the man they call "Bug" (short for "Firebug") or "Backdraft."

The general feeling in the community is that Enger is more pathetic than ferocious, but his neighbors can't spare him much pity. They've been held hostage to his pathology for more than 25 years. And although he's currently serving a 10-year sentence for arson at a prison in Appleton, Minnesota, many of them believe his latest sojourn in a cell will only interrupt his career, not end it. Police call Enger a hard-core pyromaniac—one of the most incorrigible types of criminal, and by far the most difficult to convict. If it weren't for some determined detective work and recent advances in DNA forensics, he would still be on the street.

"Alan is a lonely, frightened guy with no social skills," says Sean McKenna, an arson investigator with the Minneapolis Police. "He gets angry when he's drunk, and when he's angry he lights fires."

Alan Enger has been convicted of arson four times, first in 1983 and most recently in July 2005, for a fire that he set the previous December. That's a lot of convictions for an arsonist, but investigators have compiled a list they call "Documented Alan Enger Fires (suspicion or arrest)" with 23 entries, dating back to August 1976. They also have a more comprehensive list of 73 fires that they feel certain he started, based on location and general M. O.

According to McKenna, another, larger list could be compiled by closely inspecting the outer walls of every structure within the three- or four-block area in Northeast where Enger took his nocturnal rambles. "You'll see scorch marks on many of them," he says. "Al's not a very sophisticated arsonist. He just scrapes some brush and twigs up against a building, and tries to ignite it with his lighter. More often than not it goes out." Add the dozens of scorch-marked walls to the convictions and the "Documented Alan Enger Fires," and the total is well over 100. (City Pages attempted to interview Enger in prison. Though he initially agreed, prison officials later told CP that he had changed his mind.)

Enger has been frustrating arson investigators for decades, and he epitomizes the problems they face. Sometimes a good circumstantial case can be developed in arson-for-pay or insurance cases, but irrational arsonists like Enger are almost impossible to convict. He's frequently spotted on the scene just before fires are lit, and often seen lurking near suspicious blazes. He has admitted to being an arsonist many times in the course of interrogations, interviews, and taped phone conversations with investigators, but always without implicating himself in any specific fire. What evidence there is usually goes up in flames when an arsonist strikes, and Enger's methods are so primitive there isn't much evidence to begin with. Nor are arson fires prosecuted with the vigor of other serious crimes. Instead they are categorized as property crimes, and rarely get the attention paid to assaults, robberies, or murders.

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