Arsonist targets rural barns

SALEM, Ohio – One word describes barn owners in Wayne and Holmes counties – nervous.

Fourteen barns have been lost in suspicious fires since January 2000; nine fires occurred since last November. Three different times, fire departments had to fight two burning barns in one night.

Bleary-eyed farmers are staying up nights after putting in a full day’s work to keep watch over their barns. Some have added more lighting and locks to the barns. Neighborhood watches have been organized and many early-morning agribusiness personnel are looking out for their customers.

Prairie Township Fire Department Chief Dean Wolboldt issued pagers to farmers in Prairie Township and surrounding areas. When his department is called to a barn fire, the farmers will be alerted.

“Normally we were getting one barn fire a night, but more recently we’ve been getting two. We’re hoping by letting the farmers know we have a barn on fire we can prevent that second barn fire,” said Wolboldt. “Our goal is to get a pager to every farmer in the area.” The pagers are financed by the Prairie Township Fire Department.

Fire origins.

Six of the 14 fires were ruled arson by the state fire marshal. Origins of the other eight fires could not be determined, but are all considered suspicious.

“There is a lot of fear in the community. Farmers are realizing they can no longer rely on the honesty and goodness of the neighborhood,” said Wolboldt. “It is hard to catch an arsonist because arson is usually done by a mentally ill person. It’s hard to get into the minds of mentally ill criminals.”

None of the barn owners, responding firemen or police officials has been injured in any of the blazes and there have been a minimal number of livestock losses.

“No one has been injured in any of the fires so far. We’ve been lucky,” said Thomas Ratcliff, spokesman for the Ohio State Fire Marshal. “Although not all the barns were on working farms, all of the barns were in use.”

Wayne County Sheriff Thomas Maurer and Holmes County’s Chief Deputy Nathan Fritz of the sheriff’s office say the ongoing investigation is of top priority to their departments. Maurer says his officers follow up every lead and are extensively interviewing any contact.

“We’re concerned about loss of property or loss of life,” said Maurer. “We want people to report any suspicious activity to the police, fire marshal or local fire department.”

A multi-jurisdictional task force composed of the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office, Holmes County Sheriff’s Office, the State Fire Marshal and representatives of local fire departments is conducting the investigation.

Authorities say the recent fires are similar to a 12-year arson spree still under investigation in Wayne County.

Patterns of fire.

The fires are usually started in the late night or early morning hours, and the barns are usually situated close to the road and appear to be vacant or used for storage.

Two early April fires fit those parameters. Elaine Meggyesy’s 100-year-old barn stored two tractors and some other machinery and sits at 7333 Blachleyville Road (State Route 95) and Firestone Road. The fire started at about 11:15 p.m. April 2. Estimated damage was $150,000.

“I really couldn’t believe it. I’m not sure if I’m going to rebuild. I didn’t have enough insurance to rebuild the same type of barn,” said Meggyesy.

Dean Anderson’s barn at 9704 County Road 1 in Shreve, went up in flames at about 3 a.m. April 3 – just about 31/2 hours after Meggyesy’s fire. It housed some machinery and sat close to the road. The barn was built in 1910 by Anderson’s grandfather.

“I had some insurance, but not enough,” said Anderson. “I wouldn’t rebuild anything now anyway. You never know who might come back.”

The origins of both fires could not be determined.

Doesn’t fit.

However, the most recent barn fire, April 14 at 11849 Township Road 506, in Ripley Township, does not meet all of those parameters. The fire at Darrel and Barbara Nussbaum’s barn started between 2-2:30 p.m.

“The investigators don’t believe it’s related to the other fires. It wasn’t in the same time period as the others. It may have started from a heat lamp on our five baby turkeys, but they had been checked two hours before the fire and were fine,” said Barbara Nussbaum.

“I was standing at the window looking at the barn 20 minutes before my son drove home and saw smoke coming from the barn.”

Chief Deputy Fritz of the Holmes County Sheriff’s Office says the fire is still part of the ongoing investigation because a definite origin could not be determined.

“As far as we can tell, the fire was accidental and not related to the others. Besides being in Holmes County and in the basic general area of some of the other fires, it is not like the other fires,” said Fritz. “But because we’re not 100 percent sure of the origin, it is still under consideration.”

Reward money.

Rewards have been offered for the arrest and conviction of the arsonist(s) by the Ohio Blue Ribbon Arson Commission and the Ohio Farm Bureau. Reward monies could total $6,500.

The Holmes County Farm Bureau will sponsor an Arson Awareness Public Meeting April 23 at 7:30 p.m. at the Holmesville Elementary School. Speaking at the meeting will be the Holmes County Sheriff, a representative from the State Fire Marshal’s office and members of the Holmes County Farm Bureau.

The Holmes County Farm Bureau also offers these tips:

* Always be alert;

* Be watchful of other’s property;

* Get a good description of any unusual suspects;

* Get a make and color of any vehicles involved;

* Get a license plate number;

Anyone with information about the fires is encouraged to call the Holmes County Sheriff’s Office at 330-674-1936 or the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office at 330-287-5700.

(Reporter Annie Santoro can be reached at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or

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Barn fires in Wayne and Holmes counties

Jan. 29, 2000 –       8744 Township Road 552 in Prairie Township, Holmes County

April 8, 2000 –       Township Road 568 in Prairie Township, Holmes County

April 8, 2000 –       Harrison Road in Fredericksburg, Wayne County

April 21, 2000 –       167 Maple Street in Apple Creek, Wayne County

July 22, 2000 –       10474 Holmesville Road, Fredericksburg, Wayne County

Nov. 9, 2000 –       9141 County Road 320 in Prairie Township, Holmes County

Nov. 9, 2000 –       Harrison Road in Fredericksburg, Wayne County

Jan. 21, 2001 –       10976 East Old Lincoln Way in Orrville, Wayne County

Feb. 14, 2001 –       8649 State Route 514 in Ripley Township, Holmes County

Feb. 14, 2001 –       Corner of Township Road 506 and County Road 51, Holmes County

Feb. 16, 2001 –       Township Road 323 in Prairie Township, Holmes County

April 2, 2001 –       7333 Blachleyville Road in Wooster, Wayne County

April 3, 2001 –       9704 County Road 1 in Prairie Township, Holmes County

April 14, 2001 –       11849 Township Road 506 in Ripley Township, Holmes County.


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