Wisconsin State Journal


Burning questions: Insurance company led fire probe

May 16, 2011

HARRISVILLE — In April 2007, seven months after his Harrisville bar burned down, Joseph “Joey” Awe was arrested on suspicion of arson. It was the first he’d heard the fire was classified as arson, or that he was a suspect.

Irene Florman-Awe, his wife and a native of Poland, said they were in shock when officers came to their home in Friendship to arrest her husband and search their property for evidence related to the blaze that destroyed J.J.’s Pub.

Aside from a short talk with Marquette County Sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Joseph Konrath as the fire was being extinguished, Joey Awe had never been questioned by police.

“We never knew anything,” Florman-Awe said, her voice and hands shaking from the memory of her husband, then 36, being led away in handcuffs and the invasive search of their house that followed. “Nobody did talk to us.”

But Awe did answer questions, provide financial documents and give permission to remove items from the burned-out tavern — all at the request of Mt. Morris Mutual Insurance Co., which insured J.J.’s Pub against loss.

Unknown to Awe, the small insurer from central Wisconsin was building a criminal case against him, and the results were used by Marquette County District Attorney Richard Dufour to prosecute him for arson.

The stakes for Mt. Morris were high: If Awe were convicted, the company would not have to pay the Awes’ claim, which could be at least $200,000.

In many jurisdictions, insurance companies with a financial stake in the outcome of a criminal investigation collect and evaluate evidence that is later turned over to law enforcement — a relationship Denny Smith, a private fire investigator from Indiana, acknowledged can be “incestuous.”

“Certainly an insurance company wants somebody to be responsible, whether that’s a person or an entity that manufactures a product,” said Smith, senior fire expert with Kodiak Fire & Safety Consulting in Fort Wayne, Ind. “They try to mitigate the losses.”

Normally, when police investigate a crime, they secure the scene and collect, tag and store the evidence, creating a verified “chain of custody” to avoid loss or tampering.

If the evidence is tested, it’s done by the government or a contractor hired by law enforcement. Prosecutors must share that material with the defense, especially anything pointing toward the innocence of the accused. Suspects are questioned by police, with their lawyers at their sides, if they choose.

Joseph “Joey” Awe greets a patron of his bar, J.J.’s Pub, in this undated photo. Marquette County District Attorney Richard Dufour alleged Awe removed the large poster seen here above the video gambling machines before torching the bar. Awe and his employees said the poster — made of paper and framed with thin wood trim — burned up in the blaze.  Joseph Awe family

But that’s not how it worked after investigators suspected Awe of involvement in the Sept. 11, 2006, fire at J.J.’s Pub.

It was Mt. Morris that paid the electrical engineer who made the critical call that the fire was not electrical, prompting Deputy State Fire Marshal James Siehelr to declare it an arson. That same expert collected, stored and tested all of the electrical evidence.


Mt. Morris also paid the forensic accountant who determined — without interviewing Awe or his wife — the couple was in dire financial straits. It was James Baxter, Mt. Morris’ Milwaukee attorney, who questioned Awe under oath in a deposition. And it was Mt. Morris that paid for the fire expert who determined the origin of the fire and the theory of how it was set — an origin and theory shared by Siehelr after consulting with the expert.

Siehelr later said allowing the insurance company to conduct the most critical part of the investigation — the probe of the bar’s electrical system — is standard practice in Wisconsin.

“We don’t have any resources to do that type of work,” the deputy state fire marshal said. “We’re very reliant on insurance companies providing us with that resource.”


Attorney Robert Baranowski shows a copy of the poster investigators said was removed from J.J.’s Pub before fire destroyed the Harrisville bar. A state investigator testified the poster of Joseph “Joey” Awe and fellow Marines in Kuwait was valuable and hard to replace. After Awe was convicted of arson, the beer distributor that made the original replaced it for free, Baranowski said.
M.P. KING – State Journal

A close relationship

Wisconsin does not keep statistics on the number of structure fires in the state, nor does it track arson prosecutions, so it’s not known how many arson cases in Wisconsin involved investigators hired by private insurance companies.

Private investigators interviewed for this story agreed it’s not uncommon for law enforcement to use private experts to conduct technical aspects of arson probes. And most states, including Wisconsin, require insurance companies to turn over the evidence they uncover to police. But Smith said he’s never heard of a case in which the insurance company — and not the state — paid for the expert witness in a criminal case, as happened to Awe.

“What happens is, law enforcement doesn’t have the specialists,” Smith said. “Could they? Yes. But do they as a practical matter? No.”
Siehelr’s supervisor, State Fire Marshal Tina Virgil, agreed to talk generally about arson investigations but canceled a follow-up interview to discuss the Awe case. She declined to give a reason. Virgil also declined to answer written questions posed by the State Journal. Virgil said fire investigations are different from other criminal probes because it’s not always immediately clear a crime was committed.

If a fire is labeled accidental, the scene is controlled by the owner and the insurance company. If a fire cause is undetermined — which the J.J.’s Pub blaze officially was for months — “that might be a situation where the insurance company would take and hold items from that scene,” she said.

But if it’s considered a crime scene, agents for the state or local law enforcement take over.


“If there’s a determination that it’s an incendiary origin, we will have control over that scene and that evidence,” she said. “We will collect that evidence. Bag it. Tag it. We may submit some of it to the state Crime Lab or another testing facility to examine the evidence.”


Company takes lead

That didn’t happen in Awe’s case. Even though Siehelr listed Awe as a suspect on Sept. 12 — one day after the fire — the state continued to rely heavily on Mt. Morris to collect, test and store the evidence, according to court records.

The records show Konrath, the detective, spoke with Baxter or members of his firm 48 times in seven months. Baxter declined to say what was talked about. Konrath didn’t return two phone messages seeking comment.

Dufour, the prosecutor, insisted Konrath conducted his own investigation. Any contact with Mt. Morris likely was to receive reports and other information, he said.

Two months after Awe was arrested, the town of Harris ordered what was left of J.J.’s Pub torn down. It’s unclear why David Grace, Awe’s attorney at the time, didn’t object. Grace didn’t return phone calls seeking his comment.

Town of Harris Chairman Glenn Thalacker wasn’t just the highest ranking official in the town. He was and is on the board of directors for Mt. Morris, the Coloma company that stood to save hundreds of thousands of dollars if prosecutors could show the fire were intentionally set and not an accident.

Two messages left at Thalacker’s home to discuss the case  weren’t returned. Mt. Morris President Daniel Fenske also didn’t return a phone call and email seeking his response. Baxter declined to comment on Thalacker’s role in the demolition of the crime scene.

Big break in case
On Jan. 14, 2007, four months after the fire, Konrath, the Marquette County detective, got a break in the case. Justin Kohel, whom Konrath used as a drug informant, said Awe confided “many times” his plans to burn down the tavern to collect the insurance money. Kohel claimed some sentimental items were removed from the bar before the blaze, including a poster-sized photo of Awe taken during the Persian Gulf conflict in the early 1990s.

Rich Relien, the private fire investigator, went back out to the scene in late January. He carefully checked the debris, now blanketed by six inches of snow. Relien found no evidence of the photo.

On July 10, 2007, at a hearing to determine if the state had enough evidence to proceed, Dufour called three witnesses: Two experts hired by Mt. Morris — and Justin Kohel.

Arson
Truth in Justice