by Sarah Squires
Neighbors in west central Winona are banding together, following the news of three suspicious fires within a three block radius over six weeks. Law enforcement and fire officials believe that Winona may have a serial arsonist on the loose, and are asking for the public’s help.
Winona Fire Chief Ed Krall said during a neighborhood watch meeting last week that at least two of the fires were intentionally set, offering a profile of the typical arsonist. “It’s almost always a male,” he said, “almost always white.” At least 50 percent of arsonists are under the age of 27, he said, and often, an arsonist enjoys watching the fire burn and pretending to be part of a concerned crowd.
The meeting took on an eerie tone as Krall continued. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the person who started those fires was standing there watching, like everybody else,” he said.
The fires have been serious, all starting between 2 and 5 a.m., and two with people sleeping inside. The first was reported on November 1 at 4:56 a.m. at 565 West Mark Street, where the front porch of the residence was fully engulfed. Assistant Fire Chief Jim Multhaup said that there were no ignition sources on the porch, and it was clearly a case of arson.
The second fire was reported on November 18 at 2:12 a.m. at 521 Grand Street. The single family home was unoccupied and going through a foreclosure, with electricity and gas shut off. The door was forced open and the fire started in the basement of the residence; also, clearly another case of arson.
The third fire was reported on December 13 at 3:22 a.m. The four unit apartment building had caught fire in a recessed storage area under a second story apartment unit, with a plastic dumpster fully consumed by the blaze. Several old sofas were in the storage area, and Multhaup said the fire began in one of the couches. It is not clear whether this fire was intentionally set, but Krall said, in his mind, it was. The 15 occupants narrowly escaped the smoke and fire, with one having to flee the building in just his underpants. “That person barely made it out of that structure alive,” said Krall. “That’s how close it was to a fatality.”
Winona Police Chief Paul Bostrack said that his department has a full-time investigator working on the case, and urged the public to call in with any information, no matter how insignificant it might seem. Sometimes, cases are solved and evidence is linked with what seems like a silly tip, he said.
Neighbors were offered some tips to protect themselves and their homes (see sidebar page 1A), and asked not to be shy about calling in information or suspicious activity. Keep lights on, they said, and most of all, keep your eyes open.
Officials at the meeting seemed hopeful that the arsons would be solved. “I really feel confident that we’re going to get this thing figured out,” said Multhaup.
Winona City Council member Gerry Krage spoke to his constituents about the seriousness of the issue. He said he wished that the gathering was for another reason. “It shows we have a troubled person in our neighborhood,” he said. “But we still have a good neighborhood. With everybody in this room working together, this person will be apprehended.”