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.
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.”
“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.
||Truth in Justice