Ham Lake Fire Suspect Takes His Life
What can a person say about this heartbreaking news?
Minnesota forest fire suspect found dead
Janna Goerdt, Duluth News Tribune
Published Tuesday, December 16, 2008A 64-year-old man charged with starting one of the largest forest fires in Minnesota history was found dead Tuesday in his Washington, D.C., home of an apparent suicide.
Stephan George Posniak was indicted in October for starting the Ham Lake Fire, which did substantial damage in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. He pleaded not guilty to the crime last month in U.S. District Court in Duluth.
Joshua Aldiva, spokesman for the Washington Metropolitan Police Department, confirmed that a 64-year-old man shot himself shortly before 4:30 p.m. Duluth time in the 4600 block of Windom Place Northwest.
He declined to confirm that the dead man was Posniak, who lives on that block. But neighbors and Posniak’s Minneapolis lawyer confirmed that the victim was Posniak.
A woman who answered Posniak’s home phone Tuesday said, "We really have no comment right now."
Posniak was charged Oct. 20 in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis with one count of setting timber on fire, one count of leaving a fire unattended and unextinguished and one count of giving false information to a United States Forest Service officer.
Posniak’s Minneapolis lawyer, Mark Larsen, said one of Posniak’s relatives told him that Posniak had committed suicide Tuesday night. Larsen said relatives felt the charges against Posniak were too extreme.
Larsen said that he spoke to Posniak Monday and that Posniak was “acute in his thinking and quite pleasant over the phone.”
Neighbor Michael Collotta, who lived across the street from Posniak for six years, described him as “an absent-minded professor type.”
“He spent a lot of time outdoors, walking, in all types of weather,” Collotta said. He said that Posniak, a retired federal government employee, sometimes would walk through the neighborhood wearing shorts in the winter.
Collotta said he had never directly spoken with Posniak about the Ham Lake fire, but had heard about the charges from another neighbor.
“It struck me as something that could have happened to Steve,” Collotta said. “It’s just a shame that something happened to him that spun out of his control. He never would have maliciously lit a fire.”
The Ham Lake fire burned for more than a week, destroying more than 75,000 acres of U.S. and Canadian forest land and cost approximately $11 million to extinguish.
According to the indictment, Posniak set fire to timber, underbrush, grass and other inflammables on May 5, 2007. The indictment also alleges that on May 5, Posniak started a fire within the forest that he left without totally extinguishing, and allowed the fire to burn and spread beyond his control and burn unattended.
The indictment also alleges Posniak lied to U.S. Forest Service officers by saying he camped overnight on Cross Bay Lake, not Ham Lake, on the evening of May 4, 2007.
Posniak allegedly told officers that he encountered an out-of-control fire already burning at a Ham Lake campsite on the morning of May 5, while paddling back through Ham Lake to Tuscarora Lodge.
Metropolitan police told Collotta that Posniak’s wife had apparently discovered his body in the couple’s backyard.
“He was not the kind of person who could ever have imagined going to jail,” Collotta said.
Aldiva said Washington police are continuing their investigation.
The Duluth News Tribune and the Herald are owned by Forum Communications Co.