The Fire Man
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.
Charting the locations that Enger is thought to have struck reveals another of his characteristics, an odd combination of shrewdness and indolence that works to his advantage. As Enger's fire-starting career progressed, the area he targeted shrunk. Investigators claim he burned down a garage on Humboldt Avenue North in 1976, and over the next few years he allegedly set some fires on the industrial fringe of Northeast near Hennepin Avenue, but as time passed the places he burned were closer and closer to his home.
"He used to get around more," says McKenna. "Now he's been 86'd from just about every bar he ever set foot in, and besides, he's not as energetic as he used to be. His routine is, he sits at the kitchen table and drinks beer until the early morning hours, then he goes out and sets a fire nearby so he can see it when he goes back to the kitchen and starts drinking again."
Ironically, although local arson investigators have spent much of their working lives trying to put him in prison, Enger considers them his only friends. "You guys talk to me like I'm a person," he once told Tony Miranda, an MPD arson investigator who's gotten to know Enger well over the years. He was sober and polite during that conversation, which Miranda taped. When he's drunk, their discussions are punctuated by primal roars. Queried as to why he set a fire, Enger replied, "I was angry, nobody to talk to, couldn't talk to my ma, I was frustrated mad drinkin', and—RAARRGGH!—just lit it."
"Call me when you're drinking," Miranda urged. "I'll talk to you."
Enger took him up on that offer many times. "Hey, Tony," he began, one evening in 2004. "I'm feeling like I might cook something up tonight." A long and rambling conversation followed, in which Enger talked frankly about his compulsion. He said he targets buildings at random. "Just if I'm pissed off, walking along, I think, 'Hey, this looks like it'll burn pretty good.' It's not like if I'm mad at you, I'm gonna run over and burn your shit. It'll be somebody else, totally innocent. There's no rhyme or reason to what I do. Like I'm pissed off at my ma all the time, but I ain't gonna burn her house down."
Investigators got in the habit of visiting Enger's home whenever there was a fire in the vicinity. The inevitable knock on the door would awaken his long-suffering mother, who in turn shook Alan until he got up and came to the door. Invariably he denied everything. "His mom will say he's been in bed for hours, that we're picking on poor Alan, but she knows better," claims McKenna. "You tell her it's quite a coincidence that just about every structure you can see from their back window has burned in the past few years, and she shrugs like she can't understand it either."
McKenna thinks the changing composition of Enger's northeast Minneapolis neighborhood may have fueled his mania. When Enger was young and prone to light an occasional fire, Central Avenue was a rust-belt thoroughfare that ran through the heart of a white, primarily eastern European neighborhood. In the late 1980s, as black people began moving in, Enger's activities picked up. In the 1990s, when Latinos began arriving in numbers, he hit a manic pace that he's kept up ever since.
Subsequent waves of immigration have turned Central Avenue into a gaudy mix of cultures, their cuisines and their hangouts, but Enger, who talks like a cartoon racist, lost count at two. The invective he lobs at the people he calls "Nig-rows" and "Messicans" may amount to a more general complaint aimed at all the people who have transformed his little world: Africans, African Americans, Mexicans, Uzbeks, Palestinians, Hmong, Pakistanis. Enger's propensity for race-baiting loudly and publicly when he's drunk has earned him a number of beatings over the years. "Those nig-rows got a challenge when they fight with me," Enger once boasted to investigators. "I don't like no nig-rows on my avenue where I grew up!"
"There was some thought that the Alan Enger problem might solve itself back in the '80s," notes McKenna, "when young black guys started hanging out in the joints he frequented. But it didn't work out that way. Al's a survivor."
"He feels powerless, and fire gives him a feeling of power," adds Miranda. "He tells me he doesn't target buildings with people in them, and for the most part that's true."
Miranda and McKenna believe Enger contributed to at least one death. At 2:00 a.m. on a bitterly cold morning in January 2003, police and firemen responded to a report of a camper trailer on fire. It appeared to be in Enger's backyard. Enger was stone drunk when he finally appeared from his bedroom, according to the officer who questioned him. He issued his standard denial in more truculent terms than usual, complaining that investigators were always waking him in the wee hours just because he'd been involved in a few fires. The smell of beer on his breath was overwhelming.
"The fire was actually in the backyard of the house on 22nd, around the corner from Al," Miranda explains, "but the way the alleys are configured it was practically under his window. The garage and the camper that were on fire belonged to his neighbor, Cordell Larson, who'd just retired."
Larson and his brother had purchased the camper shortly before the fire. "My mother had died of cancer a few months before," says Janine Heitland, Larson's daughter. "My dad was just coming around, starting to cope with things again. Him and my uncle intended to take that camper up north and use it to hunt and fish once winter was over. They were both really looking forward to it."
The firemen arrived at a smoky, chaotic scene. Accounts differ about what they found there. According to one report, a fireman thinks he spotted Larson standing in the backyard when he arrived. Others don't mention seeing him on his feet. What's certain is that he was discovered lying near the back door of his house while the blaze was being extinguished. He was shirtless in the below-zero weather, with a large, bloody cut on his head. He died an hour later at the hospital. An autopsy revealed that he'd had a heart attack at the scene.
"His tools, his woodworking shop, his whole life was wrapped up in that garage and that camper," says Miranda. "He came out, saw it all on fire, and I think it put him over the edge. Yeah, he had heart disease, and maybe he'd have died in a few years anyway, but in my opinion the fire killed him. I'm 99.5 percent sure that Alan Enger started that fire, but we can't prove it.
"It was pretty confusing there," Miranda continues. "The scene looked like a homicide, with the blood and the victim on the ground, but it's been recorded as a death by natural causes." However Larson died, it was devastating for his family. "Dad's brother committed suicide afterwards," says Heitland. "They were very close, and he never recovered from that incident."
Enger later told investigators that he had no idea what happened at the Larson home: "I was like, holy Christ, what happened there? Right in my own backyard, and then later I read that he died. Had a heart attack or some shit. I still got the paper. But really, I don't have a clue about that one."
On one previous occasion, Enger had allegedly gotten violent when someone interfered with him at the scene of a fire. In the early morning hours of July 4, 2000, Enger was wandering the streets of northeast Minneapolis. Police in a patrol car spotted him on 22nd Avenue around 2:00 a.m. According to Officer Isaac Raichert, the sighting sparked a short discussion between himself and his partner, Officer Steven Derhaag, concerning the life and times of "Backdraft."
The conversation was fresh in their minds half an hour later when they spotted a garage on fire at 824 22nd Avenue. Firemen were already working on the blaze, so Raichert and Derhaag proceeded to the Second Precinct, where they reported seeing Enger in the vicinity shortly before the blaze was set. The incident seemed destined to become just another entry in the "Documented Alan Enger Fires" list, but the night was still young.
Around 4:30 a.m., a garbage truck driver named Frank Martin drove his rig into the alley behind the 2400 block of Central Avenue. He saw a garage burning. "The fire was halfway up the door," Martin later explained to investigators, "so I grabbed my extinguisher and put her out." Even so, Martin could tell that the smoldering wooden door was hot enough to burst into flames again. He kept an eye on it as he emptied several dumpsters. The flames reappeared, and as he was extinguishing them a second time he noticed someone in the alley. "I didn't have a phone with an outside line," he recalled later, "so I asked this guy if he lived nearby and could call the fire department. He said he would."
Martin hung around to see if the garage blazed up again. It did. He doused it a third time. Hearing no sirens, he used the intercom radio in his truck to contact another driver, and asked him to call 911. As he stood in the alley waiting, he noticed that the man he'd asked to call the fire department earlier had reappeared. He asked if the call had been placed.
"Instead of answering me," Martin told the police, "he walks up and says, 'You just cost me 700 bucks, you son of a bitch.' I'm like, what? 'That's right, you bastard, we been trying to get rid of this place,' he says. 'Why don't you mind your own goddamn business! What're you doing messing with my life this way?' I told him to fuck off, but he was getting more and more angry, and pretty soon he came after me."
Enger tried to assault Martin with his fists. Martin retreated, brandishing the fire extinguisher. Enger began picking up chunks of loose asphalt from the alley and throwing them. He has a pretty good arm, according to Martin, who made his way out on to Central just as the fire trucks arrived. Enger kept his distance, but he didn't run away. As Martin was explaining what had happened, Enger threw another rock. "I wasn't watching when he flung that one," said Martin. "It whizzed right past my ear, a chunk of cement the size of a fist. It could have killed me."
By then the police had arrived, and Enger was soon arrested. Two firemen saw Enger heave the cement at Martin, and later gave statements. McKenna and Miranda worked that case hard, hoping to show that Enger had set two fires in the space of two hours, but the usual problems emerged. No one had seen him set the blazes. They could only infer from his presence, his conduct, and his record that he'd done so. His claim that he'd been paid to commit arson was thoroughly investigated. "There was nothing to it," says Miranda.
Enger was eventually convicted of assault with arson as an aggravating factor, and spent 27 months in prison. At various times during his many probations and conditional releases, Enger has been required to attend counseling sessions about arson. He's been exposed to a Justice Department study that concluded the vast majority of arsons are committed for revenge or excitement. "It's done to set something in motion," in McKenna's words, "to go from a feeling of being endlessly manipulated by forces beyond your control to personally manipulating something frightening and powerful. Al flicks his lighter, and presto! Flames shoot up, people scream, fire engines come roaring down the street."
Enger was released from prison in November 2002. The arson squad list alleges he struck again on Christmas Day of that year. A memo was distributed at the Second Precinct in January 2003. It said that Enger was living at 2210 Polk with his mother again, that he was a suspect in two recent fires and was likely to continue setting them.
"He does not move far from home (usually on foot)," the memo explained, "and probably sets fires next to his house so that he does not get cold, can watch out a window, and is out of reach of the MPD." Between the posting of that memo and the end of the following December, investigators believe Enger set nine fires, including the one that may have resulted in the death of Cordell Larson.
On December 12, 2004, police received word of an assault in progress at a Central Avenue apartment building. The officers were well acquainted with the victim, who was lying on the hallway floor with blood all over his face. They patted Enger down and found a rock of crack cocaine and $2,000 in his pocket. They called for an ambulance so his injuries could be checked at a hospital. On the way, Enger claimed he'd made his nightly trip to the liquor store with the proceeds of his mother's Social Security and his own SSI check. He'd been spotted by a local hoodrat, whom Enger refers to by the color of his skin, "Black." The man saw the wad of cash Enger pulled out when he paid for a six-pack, and invited him up to an apartment that he shared with a woman. After a few brews Enger smelled a rat and tried to leave. The assault took place in the hallway. How the rock ended up in his pocket is a mystery, but investigators are skeptical about his involvement with cocaine. "I don't think he's smart enough to deal drugs," says McKenna.
Maybe, they thought, he had stolen the rock from the apartment. The woman who lived there was stoned when she was questioned about the incident. The cops, meanwhile, held on to Enger's money as evidence toward a possible narcotics charge.
Two nights later, drunk and seething, Enger set the fire that would eventually catapult him into his latest prison term. The site was an empty house at 2310 Polk Street that was being remodeled.
"That was the second time for that place," notes McKenna. "Al had burned it a few years earlier."
Police on patrol in the neighborhood spotted the blaze at 3:40 a.m. They discovered a partially consumed can of beer on the back steps, and an empty can in the wheel well of a school bus parked behind the building. By then the fire had drawn a small crowd. Officers spotted Enger in it. "He took off running and they chased him and tackled him," says McKenna. "He had a can of the same kind of beer, Icehouse, in his possession when they arrested him."
All three cans were kept for evidence. The numbers stamped on the bottom matched up. Two days later, when McKenna went to Enger's house to talk to his mother, he found another can of Icehouse, also with matching numbers, under the front steps.
"I told her there was an issue with beer cans, and if she told me about how Al got them it might help clear him," says McKenna. "She said that the day of the fire, she'd given him some money, and he'd returned with a 12-pack of beer. I asked if there was any around. She said either Al or her had drunk it all up, but she showed me her recycling stash and there were a few more cans. Same number."
McKenna traced the cans back to the Miller Brewing Company. He was told that the numbers identified them as part of a run of eight pallets of beer that had been shipped to a Minneapolis distributor, who in turn told McKenna that they'd been sold to a liquor store on Central a week before the fire.
"This all became evidence," says McKenna. "The man from Miller Brewing was under subpoena. He'd have testified if it ever went to trial, but it didn't. While Alan was sitting in jail on probable cause for the fire, I got a DNA warrant and swabbed him. Then we took DNA from the beer cans from the scene, sent them over to the lab, and they matched."
Enger made bail, and prolonged the proceedings by changing his plea several times. He was on the street when the most devastating fire in recent memory occurred on the southeast corner of Lowry and Central. In the early morning hours of May 27, 2005, three buildings—housing Tom's Barber Shop and Beauty Salon, B Sharp Music, several other businesses, and some upstairs apartments—all burned to the ground.
Tom Olsen and his wife Colleen owned the beauty salon and the largest of the buildings. "We saw the wreckage and just stopped in our tracks," says Colleen Olsen. "Okay, what do we do now? That was the question. Both of our daughters lived upstairs; they were out of town, thank God, but they were homeless, our other tenants were homeless, we were out of business. It all just went up in smoke." They plan to rebuild, at a projected cost of $1.4 million.
Debora Veencamp lived next door to the buildings that burned. "It was awful," she says. "There were neighbors pounding on doors getting people out before the firemen arrived. Someone could easily have gotten killed. Two of our friends rented above B Sharp, and I remember standing in the alley for what felt like hours, I guess it was really about 20 minutes, waiting for them to come down. Their balcony was on fire, and I was afraid they were goners. It was plain luck that nobody died, but those businesses and homes are really missed around here."
Veencamp knew all about Enger before the fire. "Everybody did," she says. "I know he hasn't been convicted of that fire, but he used the alley behind the buildings as a thoroughfare between Sully's and his house after he got drunk, and drinking and lighting fires seemed to go hand in hand with him. We were all tired of the courts giving him so many breaks, enough so that a bunch of us went down there for his sentencing. You know, the judge asked him point-blank why he set fires. 'Because I'm angry,' he said."
On July 22, 2005, Enger pleaded guilty to arson. The courtroom was packed. "The turnout was pretty impressive," says McKenna. "There were kids, lots of neighbors, impact statements from neighborhood groups. The judge was impressed, and I think it was a big factor in getting him to sentence Al under the Dangerous Offender statute. He saw how incorrigible Al is."
Judge Thor Anderson gave Enger 10 years. He said he looked at it as a way to give the community a vacation, which sums up the arson squad's attitude as well. "You never want to say people can't change," says Mirandas, "but Al, I don't know. I've got a feeling we haven't seen the last of him."
Enger remains under investigation for the May 27 fire on Lowry and Central.
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.