Off Beat

Cissy Cannon in 1998

Cissy Cannon in 1998

Sifting Through the Embers

WHEN OFF BEAT got word that convicted arsonist Douglas Hodgeman had been charged with another crime, we figured we owed Minneapolis Police Department arson investigator Sgt. Sean McKenna a call. This paper's July 22, 1998 cover story, "Playing With Fire," chronicled McKenna's pursuit of Hodgeman in the wake of a 1994 south Minneapolis apartment fire that nearly killed a five-year-old girl named Cissy Cannon and severely injured her eight-year-old friend. That case was solved after Hodgeman's brother Michael--himself a convicted arsonist who'd confessed he was involved in setting the blaze--agreed to testify against Douglas in exchange for immunity, plus a reduced sentence in an unrelated arson case. Last week Douglas Hodgeman was charged with second-degree murder after telling homicide investigators that he'd served as a lookout while a relative set fire to a south Minneapolis duplex in 1995, resulting in the death of Donna Blanchard.

"Douglas Hodgeman had been a suspect because of the m.o.: debris and upholstered furniture, a block and a half from his home," McKenna says, describing a setting strikingly similar to the one surrounding the earlier fire. "But there was nothing that could connect him to it other than circumstantial evidence." The tide shifted in the spring of 1999, when MPD homicide detectives Andy Smith and Pat King paid a visit to Hodgeman in prison, where he confessed his involvement in the Blanchard case.

Hodgeman, who's 27, had been scheduled for release in 2005, but his sentence stands to be lengthened significantly in light of the new indictment. "With the confession, a conviction would be likely," McKenna says drolly. At a minimum, he foresees another 15 years. It won't be so easy, however, to tie the case to the relative Hodgeman implicated in his statement; right now the confession comprises the sole evidence. McKenna says investigators now hope to locate people who might have seen the pair together on that night.

Reached at her home outside Los Angeles, Kelly Alvarado reports that her daughter Cissy is doing as well as might be expected nearly seven years after the fire that left her wheelchair-bound, intermittently blind, and suffering from severe brain damage. "Physically she's almost 13, but other than that it's more like she's 5. It's hard to get anything done if I don't have anyone here to watch her. But I've gotten used to it. We've got our routines," Alvarado says. "She'll ask sometimes about the fire; she knows the story by heart, but I don't know if she really understands what happened to her."

Alvarado was gratified when Sergeant McKenna called to deliver the news of Douglas Hodgeman's indictment. "I felt sorry for the person who died, but I was really happy to find out that [Hodgeman] was going to get more time," she says. "That's the only good thing that's come out of this. They said when he was sentenced that he was only going to get six or six and a half years. Six years is almost nothing. We've already lived with this for almost seven and we've got to do this the rest of her life."