The Arsons of April: Gangs, drugs and child's play

class=img_thumbleft>For Minneapolis Police Department arson investigator Sean McKenna, April was a busy month. It's not that the overall number of fires in the city--66--was particularly high. But 28 of those fires were deemed arson, which is high. In recent years, in fact, the only April with more deliberately set fires was 2003. Those numbers, McKenna notes, were inflated by the celebratory riots that broke out in Dinkytown after the Gopher hockey team won the national championship.

The most noteworthy aspect about the recent rash of arsons is geographic: 18 of the 28 arsons occurred on the north side. So is some Alan Enger-wannabe loose in the fourth precinct? Are the growing legion of property owners who face foreclosure taking desparate measures? Not in McKenna's view. On the contrary, according to McKenna, the April spike is little more than a statistical oddity.

At the very least, there is no discernible pattern that McKenna can detect. Some of the fires appear to be the product of domestic conflicts. Others seem to be gang or drug related, including one that occured in an apartment complex where the MPD recently served two narcotics warrants. Two low-grade fires that broke out in the same house look to have been set by a disturbed resident.

And then there were the three fires set in the vicinity of 3000 block of Russell Avenue. Those do appear to be the work of the same person: an eight year old girl. McKenna says that case was solved by a neighbor who installed a surveillance camera after a nearby garage caught fire.

Because she is not yet 10 (the minimum age of criminal culpability under Minnesota law), the girl hasn't been charged. Usually, according to McKenna, kids who are implicated in such fires are referred to the city's juvenille fire setting program, where they talk to firefighters, watch a video about the dangers of fire, and are treated to a free lunch.

In the case of the eight year old girl, McKenna detects less pathology than boredom. After talking to her grandparents ("really good people, really responsible"), he doubts she'll be setting any more fires.

The spike in arsons has meant that McKenna has spent more time on north side streets lately, where he leaflets homes in search of potential witnesses. "Some days," he jokes, "I deliver more mail than Cliff Claven."