Fire marshal deputy: Evidence shows arson

Published 10:21 am Friday, October 3, 2014

He notes that valuables were moved to business

OWATONNA — The fire that destroyed a home in Ellendale in December 2011 was started intentionally with the use of an accelerant, a deputy state fire marshal testified Thursday in Steele County District Court.

Mark Allan Misgen

Mark Allan Misgen

Steve Wolf said though none of the charred boards taken from the scene at 403 W. Fifth Ave. tested positive for an accelerant such as gasoline or kerosene, he still supports the conclusion based on studying how the fire traveled and what patterns it left behind.

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“Just because one was not detected doesn’t mean one was not present,” Wolf said.

Authorities have referenced a purchase Sara Ellen Degen-Misgen, wife of defendant Mark Allan Misgen, made earlier in the night of isopropyl alcohol, which can be used as an accelerant for fire but can sometimes be difficult to detect.

The fire that destroyed the house was the second fire of the night on Dec. 7, 2011, and started near the floor of a storage closet on the main level that shared a wall with the kitchen, he said. This area sustained severe fire damage, ultimately leading to the second floor above it and through the roof of the house. Wolf said there was substantially more fire damage on the wall of the house with the closet than on the side of the kitchen, leading him to think the fire did not begin in the kitchen.

All other potential causes, including accidental and electrical, were also dismissed.

Wolf’s testimony came during the jury trial for Misgen, 42, who is charged with first-degree arson and insurance fraud tied to the fire. Authorities have accused Misgen of starting his own home on fire on Dec. 7, 2011, and then later submitting insurance claims for $395,000 for the damages.

Degen-Misgen, 41, pleaded guilty to a separate charge of issuing a dishonored check earlier this week in exchange for having aiding and abetting arson and insurance fraud charges in this case dismissed.

Wolf said he responded to the home, at 403 W. Fifth Ave., at about 2 p.m. the day of the fire. He showed a series of photos he took on the outside and inside shortly after he arrived.

Firefighters had first come to the house just before 2 a.m. after Misgen reportedly returned to the residence and found smoke in the house. They found a small fire on the stove in the kitchen, which Wolf said was unrelated to the second fire.

After the first fire, the stove was taken outside. It was not in the house when the second fire took place.

The second fire was reported to authorities shortly before 4 a.m. by a passer-by who observed flames coming from the windows of the house. By the time firefighters arrived, the main floor and second floor of the north side of the house were engulfed in flames. No one was home.

Wolf said the origin of the second fire was at least three feet away and through the wall from where the stove would have been during the first fire. He did not think the two fires were related by origin.

Misgen’s lawyer, Richard Swanson, questioned why Wolf did not request fingerprints be taken on the stove or from a lighter found in a drawer in the kitchen.

Wolf said his agency does not collect fingerprints, and he did not think they would be able to be taken because of the heavy soot.

Geoffrey Johnson, insurance adjuster for Brinkman Claim Service, said he questioned whether the Misgens and their four children were living in the house on Fifth Avenue at the time of the fire because there was no natural gas service to the house, including hot water and heat, and there was minimal furniture in the home.

After the fire, he asked to see the back of Maggio’s Restaurant, which they owned, and found some items there, including a TV and video game console. Exactly how many other items were found in the room remained unclear. Pictures he took at the scene were shown to the jury, but not the audience in the courtroom.

Johnson did note, however, that it would not have been unusual for the children to have been at the restaurant.

Johnson said the Misgens signed paperwork through his company following the fire that stated they had not intentionally started the blaze and that they knew it was a crime to commit fraud.