Albert-Lea Tribune
An Interview with Bryan Purdie  

Byran Purdie Cleared:  Arson Case Dismissed

A missing part of an extension cord has derailed the county's Woodgrains Furniture arson case, and Assistant County Attorney David Walker said he would dismiss the charges today. More than two years after the fire, Woodgrains owner Bryan Purdie will be cleared of the accusations because of the basic criminal-law principle that defendants are presumed innocent unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Purdie was charged with first-degree and second-degree arson and insurance fraud in connection with the fire that burned his business in downtown Albert Lea on Dec. 6, 2000. Walker filed the charges Sept. 12, 2001 after Purdie had attempted to get his insurance payment. The insurer denied the claim.

The grounds for the dismissal were not disclosed, as a gag order imposed by Judge John Chesterman prevents both sides from discussing the case while it's still pending.

But, Walker indicated new evidence about a possible ignition source brought up by defense attorney Stephen Erickson wrecked the foundation of the charge and made further prosecution impossible.

In a court hearing on Jan. 16, Erickson presented pictures of an electric extension cord that connected an outlet on the wall to a string of Christmas lights on a grapevine deer that Purdie has claimed all along as the source of the fire.

The pictures taken just after the fire clearly show the female end of the extension cord hanging from the arch beam on the ceiling. But, other pictures Purdie took of the evidence in the Albert Lea Fire Department early last year show the female end is missing.

The cord was removed from the scene by an insurance-firm investigator two days after the fire.

Dr. Byron Sherman, an electric engineering specialist, had concluded that the cord did not experience excessive electrical current and eliminated it as a possible ignition source.

But, the report did not mention anything about the female end, which apparently suggests the part was already missing before the examination. In a reexamination taking the female end into consideration, Dr. Sherman revised his prior conclusion.

The arson charges have relied upon circumstantial evidence. There are no actual witnesses and samples of burned material came back negative for ignitable liquid in tests by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

In the criminal justice system, prosecutors bear the burden of proof. Particularly when a charge is based on only circumstantial evidence, the prosecutor needs to strike down any "rational hypothesis," or an alternative scenario that is inconsistent with the charge. In this case, prosecutors would have needed to rule out other possible causes of the fire besides arson. Walker's dismissal of the case likely means he doesn't believe the evidence collected is enough to get a conviction.

Purdie has been consistent in claiming the prosecution lacks concrete evidence. And defense attorneys tied Walker's hands by successfully blocking testimony about a positive reading on a combustible gas detector at the fire scene and Purdie's financial situation.

History of the Woodgrains Furniture case

Developments in the Woodgrains Furniture fire and ensuing arson charges against owner Bryan Purdie over the last 27 months:

Dec. 6, 2000: Insurance agent Mark Jones made a 9-1-1 call reporting a fire at Woodgrains Furniture on South Broadway, next to his building, around 5 p.m. Woodgrains owner Bryan Purdie also reported the fire after rushing into the Bible Book Store across Main Street. The flames were extinguished shortly.

Doug Johnson, Albert Lea Fire Department arson investigator, took samples from the area where a combustible gas detector reacted positively.

Dec. 8, 2000: An investigator from Purdie's insurance company took an electric extension cord from the scene to examine.

March 6, 2001: The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension lab concluded that no ignitable liquids were detected in the samples taken by Johnson the day of the fire.

June 22, 2001: Purdie filed an insurance claim of $239,611.93 for the fire damage. The insurance firm, Westfield Companies, denied the claim.

Aug. 27, 2001: Investigators searched the property with a court warrant.

Sept. 12, 2001: Assistant County Attorney David Walker filed charges of first-degree and second-degree arson, and insurance fraud, against Purdie.

Dec. 12, 2001: Purdie pleaded not guilty and requested a speedy jury trial.

April 1, 2002: Judge John Chesterman granted the withdrawal of defense attorney Don Savelkoul from the case due to Purdie's inability to pay.

April 2, 2002: Public defender Stephen Erickson was assigned as the new attorney for Purdie.

April 8, 2002: This was the first scheduled trial date. It was rescheduled because of the unanticipated change in Purdie's representation.

Oct. 7, 2002: This was the second scheduled trial date. The court rescheduled the date again as Walker objected to the suppression of key witnesses' testimony. A new trial date was set for April 1, 2003.

Oct.16, 2002: Walker filed an amended complaint, changing the basis of the first-degree arson charge from use of accelerant to setting fire on a building where another person is present.

Jan. 16, 2003: In a court hearing, Erickson brought up new evidence that the female end of an extension cord taken from the fire scene was missing, meaning the cord could could not be ruled out as a possible cause of the fire.

Feb. 19, 2003: Walker dropped the charges against Purdie.

Westfield Group:  Meet the insurance company responsible for the false charges against Bryan.

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