Wisconsin State Journal



Burning questions: After 2006 blaze destroys bar, insurer leads search for cause

May 15, 2011

HARRISVILLE — The frantic pounding on his front door door jolted Kean Fravel out of bed.


Investigators pore over what’s left of J.J.’s Pub in Harrisville, 65 miles north of Madison, searching for the cause and origin of a Sept. 11, 2006, fire.
Marquette County Sheriff’s Department photo

It was sometime after 4 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2006, when a woman he’d never met shouted that J.J.’s Pub, the bar just steps from Fravel’s apartment in this central Wisconsin town, was on fire.

Fravel, a wiry, 29-year-old machinist, dialed his landlord Joseph “Joey” Awe, a gregarious 36-year-old disabled Gulf War veteran who owned the bar and the apartment.

“Joe, you got to get here right now. The bar’s on fire,” Fravel said.

Awe, still half asleep, asked if his friend was joking.

“Joe, I’m not jerking your chain.”

Farmer Brad Kolpin was milking cows when the 911 call came in. Kolpin is chief of the Harris Volunteer Fire Department. He called in departments from around the Westfield area to help battle the blaze that was rapidly consuming the two-story, 130-year-old landmark. No one was in the bar, and the newly renovated apartment above it was temporarily unoccupied.


Shortly after firefighters got there, Awe arrived with his wife, Irene Florman-Awe, from their home in Friendship, 34 miles to the northwest.

“I didn’t see any flames until they broke in the front door,” Fravel said. “It was over after that — woof! — there was flames shooting out the front picture windows.”

Fire eventually poked through the roof and huge sections fell into the burning rubble of the bar Awes bought five years earlier.

Kolpin, whose volunteers primarily handle medical calls and grass fires, called the Marquette County Sheriff’s Department to secure the scene and investigate the intense blaze, which the 25-year fire veteran quickly suspected was not an accident.

A theory emerges
Marquette County Sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Joseph Konrath was suspicious, too, about how quickly the bar was burning. He questioned the Awes about the condition of the tavern, their next-door tenant Fravel, and recent improvements. Those included replacing some speaker wire the previous owners used for electrical wiring, Joey Awe told him.

Fravel told the detective that before firefighters arrived, he could see flickers around two video gambling  machines.

Konrath contacted the state Department of Justice, which handles complex fire investigations. Deputy State Fire Marshal James Siehelr, who investigated more than 300 fires over eight years, arrived later that morning.


Firefighters work to extinguish the Sept. 11, 2006, blaze at J.J.’s Pub in Harrisville, 65 miles north of Madison. Officials quickly suspected the fire was intentionally set, despite electrical problems at the 130-year-old building. Marquette County Sheriff’s Department photo
The officers were joined by experts hired by Mt. Morris Mutual Insurance Co., a small firm based in Coloma that insured the tavern against loss. The company also brought in Rich Relien, a former firefighter and private fire investigator from Oshkosh, to help determine the cause and origin of the fire.

Once the fire was put out, Marquette County brought in a backhoe to pull away the sections of roof and walls that collapsed over the middle of the wood-framed tavern, where firefighters saw the most smoke and flames.


Investigators zeroed in on this section of wall at J.J.’s Pub where they believe the fire started, based on the deep charring and a V-shaped burn pattern on the wall. Their conclusion: Someone punched a hole in the paneling and set fire to the wall.
Marquette County Sheriff’s Department photo

Siehelr, Konrath, Relien and Chris Korinek, an electrical engineer hired by Mt. Morris, met at the scene the next morning. It didn’t take long for them to agree on what they believed was the fire’s point of origin: A blackened hole in a section of wall in the back storeroom, about 18 inches off the floor.

Fire burned through the old wood paneling, causing a V-shaped pattern on the wall. They theorized the fire clawed its way up and through the space between the studs and shot through the roof. As it intensified, the fire spread, attacking other walls, electrical circuits and the video gambling machines, they hypothesized. Siehelr collected debris from the wall to test for any ignitable materials.

Siehelr, Relien and Konrath, at times working separately and at times together, came up with a theory: Somebody put a hole in the paneling and set the wall on fire.

Red flags
The investigators began seeing other red flags all over the place: The Awes were trying to sell the bar for three years and recently dropped the asking price by $45,000 to $250,000. A retaining wall holding back the mill pond behind the bar was beginning to crumble, and the Awes and the pond owner were squabbling over who would fix it.

Investigators also found it convenient that the normally rented upstairs apartment was temporarily vacant.


A forensic accountant hired by Mt. Morris later concluded the Awes were losing money on J.J.’s Pub. Even though neither one drew a salary from the business, the bar was still losing a few hundred to a few thousand dollars a year. The Awes, the accountant concluded, were in bad financial shape.

Since all the doors were secured when firefighters arrived, the investigators quickly ruled out someone breaking into J.J.’s Pub. They also eliminated a gas explosion or lightning as causes.
The investigators discounted clues that pointed away from the Awes burning down the bar, such as the $903 in cash and checks that were left in the locked, walk-in cooler. Or the thousands of dollars and many hours they spent installing new carpet, painting and refinishing the cabinets in the upstairs apartment for a friend and her baby who, in a few days, planned to move in.

Missing picture
Another clue arson investigators look for is the removal of valuable, irreplaceable or sentimental items before the fire. By early December, Siehelr and Konrath zeroed in on a big picture of Joey Awe and some Marine Corps buddies riding on top of a Humvee as Kuwaiti oil wells burned in the background.

The photo, taken for Time magazine and published in the book, “Time Goes to War,” became one of the signature images of the Persian Gulf conflict in the early 1990s. The image was enlarged to a 3-foot by 4-foot poster and customized with a Miller Lite logo and the words “Welcome to J.J.’s Pub.” It hung above two of the gambling machines.

In January, four months after the fire, Relien — the investigator for Mt. Morris — returned to the scene, now covered in snow. As he picked through the burned wood, twisted metal and the blackened remains of the bar, he found no glass or frame in the area where the photo was hung. Someone must have removed it to keep it safe from the fire, he reasoned.

Conclusion: Arson
Across the storeroom from where investigators determined the fire started, the bar’s electrical panel hung forlornly from a metal pipe. The wall it was attached to mostly was burned away. Two aluminum bars that were in the panel melted, and the wires were a tangled mess. The panel’s cover lay several feet away. It was later carted off to a landfill with the rest of the debris.
But Konrath and Siehelr’s investigation focused on the opposite wall, with the V-shaped burn pattern. Finding no evidence of an electrical malfunction in that area — no wires, switches or electrical appliances — the investigators informally ruled out electricity as the cause of the fire, eliminating the remaining cause that could require Mt. Morris to pay the Awes for their loss.
When Korinek, the insurance company’s electrical expert, came back in March 2007 with his preliminary report also ruling out an electrical cause, Siehelr changed the cause of the fire from undetermined to arson.

“I was able to eliminate all potential accidental ignition sources in that area of origin,” Siehelr later said, “which leaves no other possible conclusion than for this to be incendiary.”

‘It’s not right’
Four days after the fire, Joey Awe cursed as he walked through what was left of his bar. He shuffled dejectedly through the rubble wearing a neck brace. The soft collar eased the pain of a broken neck he suffered in a car crash in 1994. That injury, and the physical and mental scars he carried from his tour in Kuwait, left Awe permanently disabled and in constant pain.

Alex Tyler, his stepson, videotaped Awe and tried to joke with him as they uncovered a blackened No. 12 pool ball, melted booze bottles and other objects. But Awe was having none of it. When he discovered that the walk-in cooler that held the few valuables salvaged after the fire had been burglarized, Awe was livid.

“I just can’t believe this,” Awe said on the tape. “It’s not right. This is ... horrendous.”

It soon got much worse.

Just one day after the fire, Siehelr already was listing Joey Awe in a police report as “Suspect #1” in the Harrisville fire.

Arson
Truth in Justice