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