Signs point to arson, but does the City care?
Dan and Mary Opperman are getting out of Riverwest.
It’s not that they want to. “I’ve lived in Riverwest ever since I moved to Milwaukee in 2005,” says Mary. “And I’ve never considered living anywhere else in the time I’ve been here. I love the neighborhood.” But after their garage and the house across the alley went up in flames, the writing was on the proverbial wall. Just before Thanksgiving 2009, someone set fire to Dan and Mary’s garage at 2525 N. Weil. If that wasn’t enough, on January 11, 2010–just one week before Pizza Man, three other businesses and about a dozen apartments, were lost to a tragic fire–a rental home across the alley at 2518 B North Bremen street also caught fire, leaving four people homeless.
“We had just gotten married and we had gotten some new stuff, and we had just put the cardboard out that night,” says Dan. “And I think someone saw the cardboard and lit that up.”
Two months prior to the Oppermans’ garage incident, a fire inside a garbage cart spread to the house at 900 E. Wright Street–only a stone’s throw away from the Oppermans and 2518 N. Bremen–and left more residents homeless. Shana Mill was one of those residents, and exclaimed “Me too!” when told of the Oppermans taking out their cardboard the night of their fire.
“I had just moved in, and I had just unpacked my stuff,” Shana recalls. “And at two, two fifteen in the morning, I hear pounding on my window: ‘Get out! Get out!’ It was a cop and a bartender walking home and they ran over and got me out. What happened was someone lit the trash can on fire, which was next to the building, and it set the electrical box on fire, and it crawled right up the side of the building into my boyfriend’s apartment and onto the roof. It burned from the top down.”
But no one knows about it.
News reports are few and far between, and follow-up coverage is non-existent. Why? In Shana’s words, “It’s Riverwest.” People mistakenly assume that bad things just happen there, or chalk things like garbage fires up to irresponsibility or vandalism. Meanwhile, there are more questions than answers and neighborhood residents are afraid to fall asleep, worried that an arsonist is trolling the streets. It’s that fear that is driving the Oppermans out.
“If [whoever’s responsible] is not caught when our lease is up, I’m outta here,” Dan says. “And I love our house. If I could feel safe living there, I would. But every night I go to bed, and I’m scared shitless that I’m gonna wake up and our house is gonna be on fire.”
Shana, meanwhile, is already gone. “We got out. It was so traumatizing. I was six months pregnant. I was like, I cannot live here with a child and risk this happening again. So we moved to Greenfield. It sucks! My friends are in Riverwest. I was so happy to move into that little place. It was affordable, and these are my people… and we had to get out. And our landlord offered for us to come back. They just finished rebuilding and it’s beautiful, but I can’t live in there. I’d be too afraid.”
All three say they would reconsider leaving Riverwest if the party or parties responsible for the fires were caught–or if they were at least told that an investigation were on. But they’ve been told nothing. As Dan says, “Maybe there’s an insane investigation going on, but we don’t know about it.”
So we at ThirdCoast Digest decided to do a little investigating of our own.
We set out to clarify the facts and hopefully make connections between this odd string of suspicious fires. After a month of emails, phone calls and trips to the MPD’s records department, there’s little to show for it. It’s easy to see why Riverwest residents think they’re being kept in the dark.
Though considered public records, fire and arson reports are not easily accessible to the public. First, we had to delineate between general fire reports (handled by the Milwaukee Fire Department) and arson reports (which fall under the Police Department’s jurisdiction, since arson is a crime). Luckily, the city’s COMPASS site provides an online search tool for all reported arson cases, organized by police district. Address, date and time of the crime are listed on this site, but accessing any useful information requires a trip to the MPD’s public records department.
Sounds simple enough, but obtaining this information took several phone calls to the Milwaukee Fire Department’s records division, email queries to the Fire and Police Commission and a series of emails to the PR contacts for both the MPD and the MFD. Two weeks after we began this project the MFD’s records division finally called back, but only to say that they would start to work on our request. By press time, that will have been over one week ago.
Also, requesting records in person does not guarantee that you’ll receive them–at least not right away. Of the four reports requested in person at the MPD as well as in writing through the MFD, we received one. But it was a good one. Here’s what we found.
The most recent Riverwest fire occurred on the morning of January 11, 2010 at 2518 B North Bremen Street. Though it has not been officially deemed arson, news reports and eye witnesses suspect it as such. While searching through COMPASS, we found something interesting. On July 13, 2009 arson was reported in the residence at 2518 N. Bremen- the house directly in front of 2518 B. At the MPD, we were able to obtain the incident report for the case from July, which had some startling clues about what may have happened that morning in January.
From what we can tell, it appears as though the incident report for the July fire was filed much later–on January 11 to be exact. According to the report, detectives were called to investigate the fire at the rear house on Bremen Street around 8 a.m. on January 11. While conducting interviews with the property manager and some of the victims, Detective Larry Schimke writes that he was then informed of a separate fire that occurred in July.
The report states that the tenant living in the front house set fire to his roommate’s door on July 13, saying that “he was locked out the room…so the only way to get in was to burn the lock off.”
For our purposes, we’re referring to this person as “Ned.” The incident report lists him as a white male, approximately six feet tall with brown hair and in his early 50s.
The police were not notified of the fire in July. Instead, the property manager contacted Ned’s social worker, whereupon he was committed to a mental health facility. At that time, he was listed as “manic, under medication and non-compliant” according to the social worker’s report.
On the morning of January 11 neighbors and witnesses told police that they saw Ned walking away from the rear house at 2518 B N. Bremen about 15 minutes before the fire was discovered. Detective Schimke states that during his investigation citizens told him “about numerous fires in the area ranging from garbage cans to garages…that they believe Ned was responsible for these fires.” A firefighter at the scene also told detectives that he had been dispatched to a garbage fire in an alley on the 1100 block of Meinecke at 3 a.m. the same morning and observed a “white male, brown hair, 6’00”, thin build, last seen wearing a red hat and jacket.”
Upon entering Ned’s house that day, police found “numerous books of matches” as well as a red hat and red flannel jacket that smelled of smoke, apparently airing out in the bathroom. Ned was arrested and charged with arson that day, but only for the fire that occurred in his own apartment in July. Last Tuesday, he was found competent to stand trial and his preliminary hearing has been set for February 22, 2010. He is currently in custody.
It’s a start. But will this be enough to quell the fears of people like the Oppermans–people who are contemplating moving out of their beloved neighborhood? And why is it taking so long to locate these records?
At this point, we have not been contacted by the MPD’s records division or the MFD’s fire reports section regarding our other requests. After speaking with some of the victims, we also emailed Police District 5 liason Ray Robakowski, The Riverwest Neighborhood Association and Alderman Nik Kovac to ask, essentially, “What would you tell these victims who are now considering leaving Riverwest?”
Mr. Robakowski forwarded our email to Anne E. Schwartz, PR Manager for the MPD. She wrote back stating that she would respond to our question once she returned from vacation on February 8, but as of yet has not replied. We are also awaiting reply from the RNA and Alderman Kovac.
Meanwhile, Riverwest continues to wonder if there’s anything more to fear. In Dan’s words, “I wanna know if it’s safe to take my recyclables out.”