Four fires spark questions about arson

Jim Martyka

University Police suspect arson in four fires that have occurred in Sanford Hall during the past two weeks.
The two most recent fires, one early Saturday and the other early Tuesday, have police looking for one or more people who are intentionally setting fires in the residence hall.
Saturday’s incident occurred in the early morning hours in a laundry cart on the second floor. At about 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, another fire was found in a second-story stairwell, coming from a bag of burning garbage.
There are enough similarities between the fires that University Police said they are now almost certain arson is involved.
“The odds of this many fires with these similar circumstances, in this time period, would be astronomical,” said Capt. Bruce Troupe.
Officials from several University departments met Sunday night at Sanford Hall to inform residents about the incidents and ask them to keep their eyes open for clues that might lead to the perpetrators.
Speaking to about 30 students in the hall’s cafeteria, Troupe said police need building residents to be alert to and inform police of any suspicious behavior they observe. Troupe and several other speakers, including residence hall director Tony Skusevich, also emphasized the importance of evacuating the building when prompted by fire alarms.
“To be honest with you, we are lucky we caught these fires as early as we did,” Skusevich told the students. “We are lucky no one has been hurt so far.”
Skusevich spoke about incidents occurring on other campuses throughout the country. Earlier this school year, an apartment fire in which arson is suspected, killed one student at Central Missouri State University. And at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill last May, a fraternity house fire took the lives of five students.
Police Chief Joy Rikala said the department would push for the strictest possible penalties for the guilty parties. Arson is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a $35,000 fine.
“I can’t stress enough how important it is to come forward with information,” she said.
In a telephone interview following the fourth incident, Sgt. Joe May said nearly everyone on the University Police force is working on the investigation.
“We are beginning to narrow portions of the investigation. We’re interviewing essentially everyone in the dorms.
“The police are putting a lot of resources toward this because we’re worried about the potential aspect of this crime,” he said. “Everything else is pretty much on hold for now.”
Housing and Residential Life, in conjunction with the University Police, are offering a $1,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest of the person or people involved in these fires.
“The behavior of a person who sets fires or turns in false alarms is unacceptable behavior,” said Capt. Steve Sorbel of the Minneapolis Police Department.

Despite being busy investigating arson on campus, University Police faced several other incidents, as well.

ù A former employee of the University Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science has been accused of stealing University property while he was working in the department. The investigation is still ongoing.
The man, who has not officially been charged with the thefts, was found in possession of more than a thousand dollars of University equipment — mostly tools from the chemical engineering department — when University Police searched his home earlier this month.
Detective Brad Herberg said the man was initially a suspect because he was shown on a video in the department stealing the items after business hours. Police then obtained a warrant for searching the employee’s house.
Police think the man has been stealing the tools on separate occasions over a long period of time.
“It was not a one-time shot where he would go in and take stuff,” said Herberg.
Despite the evidence police found, the case is not closed. Herberg said he has only briefly talked to the suspect once because the man didn’t want to talk without a lawyer. Herberg said he needs to talk to the man again, mostly to find out if there are any other items police didn’t find.
He also said that for trial purposes other employees still have to identify some of the items that were found. “Basically, it’s a matter of polishing the case up,” Herberg said.
ù Driving through the intersection of Washington and University Avenues isn’t tricky — but it can occasionally be dangerous.
According to Minneapolis police reports, Luke Bothum, 25, was driving his 1991 Ford Explorer in the area when an unknown suspect “threw an ice chunk, from a high place, on his vehicle.”
The ice chipped the hood of the car and caused damage to a bug deflector and the passenger side headlight and frame.