Playing With Fire
On a cold March night in 1994, 5-year-old Cissy Cannon invited her 8-year-old friend Lacey Van Wagner to spend the night at her home in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis. It was the first time Lacey had slept over, and the girls squealed and talked until late, prompting Cissy's mother, Kelly Alvarado, to implore them to be quiet so she and Cissy's brothers Keith and Kevin could sleep.
At around 2 a.m., Alvarado would later tell police, she was awakened by the sounds of a heated argument coming from the apartment above her, where Cheryl Partlow lived with her friend Kenny Hollingsworth. Alvarado's new husband José had just started a job in California, and she was alone with the kids. She climbed the stairs and asked the couple to pipe down, and Hollingsworth told her everything was okay. Shortly afterward, Alvarado would later recall, she heard two people get into a car and drive off. She didn't know who they were.
Asleep in their unit in the basement, apartment manager Kay Englund and her 17-year-old son Jonathan were undisturbed by the discord upstairs, but David Bates, who lived across the hall from Partlow and Hollingsworth on the second floor of the six-unit, two-and-a-half-story building at 813 E. 21st St., would tell police that he'd been awakened by the loud quarrel. The fighting lasted an hour, Bates recounted, as did his bout with insomnia.
About the time Bates finally drifted off, Loretta Potter was returning to her second-floor apartment from her job at Mystic Lake Casino. Because of the late hour, instead of parking on the street she pulled her 1989 Ford Aerostar van into the alley behind the building and went upstairs to bed.
In an apartment building around the corner, Henry Steward and his fiancée Sareen Sandhu were playing cards with Kay Englund's nephews, Douglas and Michael Hodgeman, who lived next door with their mother. The party broke up at about 4 a.m., Steward and Sandhu later told police, whereupon they went to bed. Locked out of their mother's apartment, the Hodgemans lingered in their hosts' living room playing dice and drinking beer, they would tell investigators.
Kelly Reynolds, who lived across the alley from 813 E. 21st St., rose at 4 a.m. to get ready for the drive to Hillcrest Medical Center in Wayzata, where she worked. Less than an hour later, she pulled her red Dodge Shadow into the alley to use the communal dumpster behind 813. Later she would tell police that she'd noticed a man running down the back stairway from the second floor and joining another man who seemed to be knocking on Kay Englund's door. Both men looked at her, the 27-year-old Reynolds would recall. She also said she'd glanced at the clock on her dashboard and noted that it was 4:59 a.m.--a minute before her favorite religious radio program, The Protestant Hour, was scheduled to begin.
At about that same time, Dennis Hand would recount to investigators, he was starting his day by brewing a pot of coffee in his apartment across the street from 813 E. 21st St. He paid little attention to the voices he heard outside, he said--people were always out there talking at all hours. But at about 10 past 5 he heard what sounded like a gunshot and crackling noises. Looking out the window, he saw fire leaping over the roof of 813. He awakened his roommate, Deborah Kerola, and together they watched as people began fleeing the burning building.
Kay Englund had a cold, which caused her to wake up early. She turned on the TV and channel-surfed a bit, but after a sudden crackling noise, the power went out. Making her way to the back door to check the fuses, Englund saw an orange glow, and smoke. She called the fire department and roused her son, who grabbed his comic-book collection as the pair left the building. At the same time, David Bates's battery-operated smoke detector sounded. Before he too got out of the building, Bates pounded on the door of his sleeping neighbors' apartment, trying to alert them to the fire.
Douglas and Michael Hodgeman told police they'd been drinking and playing dice when they noticed the fire, and Michael had dialed 911 while Douglas raced over to alert his Aunt Kay. When he got to the apartment, Michael recounted to investigators, he saw that two vans parked in the alley next to the building had caught fire.
Kelly Alvarado awoke to the sound of banging and an apartment filled with smoke. She stumbled around, rousing her two boys and rushing them out the door. She tried to turn on a light, but the power was off, a fact that had, she surmised, muted the electronic smoke detectors. Alvarado could hear Cissy and Lacey in Cissy's bedroom yelling for help but she couldn't find her way through the darkness and the thickening smoke. Powerless to help the girls, she stumbled through the apartment gasping for breath.
Amid the panicked cries of her mother and her friend, Cissy Cannon passed out in her pillow, cutting off the flow of oxygen to her brain.
Shivering in her bathrobe, Kay Englund watched as nearly 50 firefighters battled the 3-alarm blaze that was quickly consuming her home. "It happened so fast," she recalls today. "In no time the whole building was on fire. It was awful to watch."
Sgt. Sean McKenna, now a member of the Minneapolis Police Department's arson unit, also vividly remembers the March 13, 1994, fire; a patrol sergeant in those days, he was summoned to the scene. "It went up like a bomb," says the arson investigator. "It started on the back porch, but the wood was so dry it quickly spread to the roof and the rest of the building."
As the inferno lit the dark sky, firefighters attempted to make their way into the building but falling beams and cinder held them at bay. When they were able to rescue Cissy Cannon and Lacey Van Wagner and administer first aid, Lacey was gasping for air and Cissy wasn't breathing at all. Both girls were rushed to the hospital, where they were treated for smoke inhalation and second- and third-degree burns.
Almost two hours later, as landlord Charles Mesken and the Red Cross worked to find beds for the homeless and police questioned witnesses, firefighters finally contained the blaze. By then charred personal belongings were strewn everywhere, Loretta Potter's Aerostar and a second van were destroyed, and 813 E. 21st St. was a smoldering shell.
Lacey Van Wagner was hospitalized for a month with burns on her legs. Her friend Cissy Cannon was in even worse shape. When she was brought to Hennepin County Medical Center, the doctors predicted Cissy wouldn't live. Besides the second- and third-degree burns on her arms and legs, one-third of her brain had been destroyed owing to lack of oxygen. She remained in a vegetative state for six months and over the next four years she would undergo multiple skin grafts as well as spine surgeries to counter uneven physical growth caused by the brain damage.
Suspecting arson, Minneapolis fire officials turned over the case to police. A preliminary investigation revealed that the fire started when a mattress was set afire on the back porch. Apparently, no chemical agents had been used. At first the investigators seized upon the quarrel between Cheryl Partlow and Kenny Hollingsworth that had awakened the neighbors; they also heard stories of an allegedly vengeful cousin of Loretta Potter's husband.
And then there were the two men neighbor Kelly Reynolds said she'd seen on the stairs outside Kay Englund's door not long before the fire broke out. Reynolds was able to give police a pretty clear description: Both of the men were about 27 years old, of medium build, and close to 6 feet tall. One had short brown hair and was wearing a dark baseball cap and blue coveralls, she recalled; the other had long light-brown hair and a mustache and beard, and was wearing jeans and a white sweatshirt with the word "Georgetown" stenciled on it in red and blue. Additionally, Stacie Luoma, who lived in the same building as the Hodgemans, had seen them earlier that evening in the hallway. She told police that Douglas Hodgeman had been wearing dark-green or blue matching shirt and pants and Mike was wearing jeans and a gray or white jacket or T-shirt with "Georgetown" on it. Sareen Sandhu and Henry Steward gave police the same description. While Luoma said neither of the brothers had a beard, Jonathan Englund recalled that both his cousins had sported a few days' stubble.
Douglas Hodgeman told police that on the night of the fire he was wearing a dark-green short-sleeve shirt and pants. He said he couldn't remember whether he was wearing a hat. He described his brother's clothing as a sport shirt, green jeans, and a Georgetown University jacket; Michael agreed that was what he'd worn.
Even more significantly, police background checks on the Hodgeman brothers revealed that they had been suspects in six previous fires around the neighborhood and were well-known to the precinct officers. A third Hodgeman brother, William, had served almost a year in the Hennepin County workhouse after being charged with first-degree arson for setting fire to a house in 1990.
Still, investigators didn't have sufficient evidence to justify arresting the Hodgemans. The fact that Reynolds's description appeared to match the brothers wasn't nearly enough to overcome the 10-minute gap between the time she'd seen them and the time investigators determined that the fire had been set. A case built on such circumstantial evidence would never stand up in court.
None of the other leads panned out. Cheryl Partlow and Kenny Hollingsworth moved away. So did Loretta Potter. So did Kelly Alvarado, who moved her family to Southern California a year later to join her husband. Investigators entered information about the case into the police department's computer system, where it joined other open and unsolved arsons, and where it would languish for the next three years.
The typical serial arsonist is a male between the ages of 16 and 30, a poor student with weak social skills who tends to start fires around his own neighborhood at night in order to retaliate against real or imagined slights, explains Jamie Novak, an investigator for the St. Paul Fire Department.
"It's a power thing," Novak says. "There's power in fire. You set one and all of a sudden you have the entire fire department at your disposal."
Novak recalls a serial arsonist who started more than 100 fires in the metro area because his application was rejected by the fire department. He says that often the arsonist himself calls in to report the very fire he set, or tries to help extinguish it. "They want to be in the middle of it," the investigator explains. "They want to look like heroes."
The Federal Bureau of Investigation published a 1990 report titled "The Firesetter: A Psychological Profile," which divides arsonists into two groups: "motivational," which includes those who set fires for spite, revenge, or gain; and "motiveless," those who are driven by an irresistible impulse and derive a sensual satisfaction from the act. A member of the latter group may not be entirely aware of the sensual aspect, according to the report; he's likely to view the act as revenge or retaliation. Some "motiveless" arsonists are further classified as "pathological," in that they set fires as an act of aggression or hostility to relieve psychological stress or emotional tension, inflate a low sense of worth, and provide excitement.
The FBI report describes the typical arsonist as having grown up in an impoverished, disruptive, broken, mother-dominated home. Among the cases studied, the researchers also found psychological and emotional problems including paranoia, insecurity, and instability leading to sexual perversion, alcoholism, and criminal acts.
Dr. Eric Hollander, professor of psychiatry and director of the Compulsive, Impulsive, and Anxiety Disorder Program at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City, classifies pyromania as an impulse-control disorder, a group of mental disorders that includes compulsive gambling and sexual addiction. "Pyromaniacs get excited, sexually aroused, and gratified setting fires," says Hollander. "They feel alive--it's an erotic act.
"These people need to set fires to relieve the tension building in them," the psychiatrist continues. "Once the flame is lit, it is accompanied by a calm feeling of relief." Hollander adds that there's a high correlation between past sexual abuse and impulse-control disorders.
Pyromaniacs represented 60 percent of the 600 arsonists examined by psychologists Nolan D.C. Lewis and Helen Yarnell in their highly regarded 1955 book on serial arsonists, Pathological Firesetting (Pyromania). Lewis and Yarnell describe serial arsonists this way: "These are mysterious firebugs who terrorize neighborhoods by going on solitary firesetting sprees, often nocturnal, during which they touch off trash fires without regard to whose property is endangered.... These offenders offered no special reason or persistent interest beyond the fact that something within them forced them to set the fires."
According to Hollander, there's a strong genetic component to impulse-control disorders. "It is not unusual or surprising to see numerous members of the same family with this disorder or other manifestations of it."
Sean McKenna was the only Minneapolis Police Department patrol sergeant in the precinct on duty on the night of the fire at 813 E. 21st St., and four years later he vividly remembers the blaze. "It was completely out of control," recalls the 13-year veteran of the force, who joined the Arson and Bomb Unit last year. "At one point the fire department sounded six air horns signaling the firefighters to leave the building because it was hopeless. It was eerie."
The athletic, soft-spoken, 38-year-old sergeant, who moonlights with the St. Louis Park Fire Department, candidly admits that most arsons he's called on to investigate are destined not to be solved. In fact, 90 percent of the arsons assigned to his unit don't result in a conviction. Files neatly stacked on his desk are packed with the minute details of unsolved blazes involving everything from automobiles to apartment houses, trailers to trash cans. Unlike homicides and rapes, McKenna notes, fires don't often yield much in the way of clues. "Arson is a crime usually done alone, under the cover of darkness, with few witnesses," says the sergeant. "And fire wipes out any evidence there was. We often have to wait for a break in arson cases."
More than three years after the 21st Street fire, McKenna got just such a break, in the form of a phone call from police in Burnsville. This past October, someone had set fire to a piece of carpeting in the stairwell of an apartment building there. Under police questioning, a suspect had admitted he'd set the fire in order to spite a landlord who had evicted his girlfriend for making too much noise. But there was more, the Burnsville investigators told McKenna: Hoping to make a dent in a probable 48-month prison term, the suspect had offered to supply information about prior fires in Minneapolis. Specifically, he claimed to know about two vehicle fires, a dumpster fire, and a March 1994 fire that destroyed an apartment building at 813 E. 21st St.
The eager informant's name: Michael Hodgeman.
McKenna was elated. "I remembered that smoky, ugly mess and what it did to those girls," he says. "I was happy that finally it would be able to move forward."
The East 21st Street fire hadn't previously been McKenna's case, but now he was assigned to it. He downloaded the dormant file, retrieved the photos of the burned building from police archives, and read through the voluminous interviews his predecessors had conducted with witnesses. After reviewing what he had on file, he began trying to track down the witnesses to see if he could pry loose any additional information, given the new development. He also updated the criminal histories of Douglas and Michael Hodgeman.
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.
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."
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.)
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.
Kay Englund says she was shocked to hear that her nephew had been arrested for allegedly setting fire to her building. "I've known them since they were little," she says. "They got into the typical trouble, but nothing like this. Still, if they were capable of setting those other fires, they could have done ours. This still has to sink in."
When the Hodgeman boys were little, Englund recalls, their father used to take them out to watch fires. "He would listen to the scanner, then bring them out to the scene," she remembers. "They went to neighborhood fires, and they were even at that big fire downtown on Thanksgiving around 10 years ago." Englund says the boys were mischievous and active but also notes that they had drinking problems. She says her son Jonathan, now 21, was close to Douglas Hodgeman and that "he's just furious that they would start a fire in a building we were in."
Susan Johnson, a former downstairs neighbor of the Hodgemans, remembers all the brothers as friendly and likable and says it took her a long time to realize they were vindictive as well. She also recalls their first meeting: "They were moving in. We introduced ourselves and were chatting, and Dougie ran upstairs to bring down a photo album. We thought, you know, they're going to show us a family photo album with family pictures. But when we opened it, we saw that it was full of pictures of different fires at their previous home."
Johnson adds that she believes Michael Hodgeman had something to do with the 21st Street fire and points to the mysterious "Roxie" as proof: "There was no Roxie," she says. "I knew Doug's girlfriend and her name wasn't Roxie and she didn't live in that building. Michael probably made her up to pin the fire on his brother."
Anthony Holmes, too, knows about the Hodgemans and arson. "I used to give them work raking leaves and stuff," he says. "I thought we were good friends and I thought they were good kids. I wouldn't have ever believed they set my garage and all those other fires if the neighbors hadn't seen them do it." Holmes says Douglas Hodgeman never paid him any of the court-ordered $6,000 in restitution, and he expresses no surprise at the news of new arson charges.
"I told the prosecutor at the trial and his parole officer, 'There are two things you can't stop: a firebug and a rapist,'" Holmes recounts. "I told them they were going to do it again. It's in their blood."
Kristina Cannon still has long blond hair that her mother refuses to cut. She still tries to lord over the brothers she adores. And she still loves a purple dinosaur named Barney.
But that is all that's recognizable from the Cissy Cannon of four years ago.
Now 10 years old, Cissy doesn't remember how to play with the Barbie dolls she used to prize. She can't hold a spoon to her mouth or sit up by herself or tell her mother when she's wet, and she has to be fed through a tube. She speaks an unintelligible language and has only recently advanced to the mental level of a 4-year-old. On good days, she's able to see.
"She asked me four times for 'two Cissys,'" says Kelly Alvarado. "She wanted another one, one that can speak, play, not have to go through all this. She wanted another one to be the Cissy she was."
Although her youngest child Keith doesn't remember the fire, Alvarado says it has traumatized her eldest, 11-year-old Kevin. "He acts out," she explains. "In the third grade he refused to do anything in school, even sign his name. He's been a handful. He's still in counseling for nightmares and depression."
Alvarado has packed away her daughter's old toys and pictures at their new home in California and has struggled to accept that her condition will improve only marginally. She doesn't think about the future, because doctors predict Cissy won't be in it: She is not expected to live past her 21st birthday. Still, Alvarado keeps her daughter active. Cissy attends a special school for the handicapped, and she's a member of the Girl Scouts.
"The doctors never thought she would improve this much," says her mother. "But she was always stubborn. I don't know how much more to expect, but what I have is more than I should have had.
"It was hard hearing her yell and not being able to help her," Alvarado says of the fire. "Maybe I could have gotten her out and things wouldn't have been so bad. Having someone depend on you and not being able to help is hard to deal with. I have to live with that. I don't want to let her down again."
Half a continent away, Lacey Van Wagner still lives at her home on Elliot Avenue, only a block from the site of the fire that left her scarred for life. Often when the 13-year-old is asked about the scars on her legs, she lies. "I make stuff up like, 'It's a birthmark,'" she says. "But I know that I'll have to accept them--sometime."
When Lacey recovered from the skin grafts after the fire, she returned to school, but classmates gave her a hard time and her mother had to hire a tutor. She sees a therapist every few months and takes medication for depression.
"She doesn't think about it so much any more," says Evelyn Van Wagner, "but she's different. She used to be bubbly and outgoing. Not anymore. Now she doesn't ever want to do anything. She'll never be a cheerleader, but the fire also caused a lot of emotional problems. She stopped feeling like everyone else."
When police informed Van Wagner that Douglas Hodgeman had been charged with setting the fire, she wasn't surprised. "We had had trouble with him before," she says. "What's weird is that the morning of the fire, he was the one that came over to tell me Lacey had been in the building."
Kelly Alvarado says she was shocked when Sean McKenna called to inform her that Douglas Hodgeman had been accused of setting the fire. "'Dougie? It can't be,'" she recalls telling the sergeant. "'He used to play with my kids!'"
Now Alvarado is eager to see the case closed. Like Van Wagner, she plans to attend Hodgeman's trial, and like Van Wagner, she plans to bring her daughter with her. "I need to confront them to find out why," she says. "I want them to see what they've done to her. They need to see that. She deserves it. Cissy will never grow up, never have a first date, never have children. And I'll never have my daughter back. No punishment will ever be enough."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.
- Sketchy Toby Keith's I Love This Bar and Grill empire crumbles
Sat., Oct. 17, 12:00am
Sun., Oct. 18, 12:00pm
Fri., Oct. 23, 7:00pm
Sat., Oct. 24, 7:00pm
- Anti-abortion investigators' shocking revelation: U does research
- Top 5 Hate Mails of the Week: 'I can't believe Shitty Pages...'