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D.C. man charged in large 2007 Minnesota wildfire kills self

Stephen Posniak (foreground), who was 64, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to his attorney, Mark Larson. He is shown during a fall court appearance. A Washington, D.C., resident and former federal employee was accused of causing one of the most destructive forest fires in Minnesota history. It was an area he had visited every year for 20 years for vacations, his lawyer said. (Duluth News Tribune file photo)

A Washington, D.C., man charged with starting one of the largest forest fires in Minnesota history was found dead Tuesday of an apparent suicide at his home.

Stephen George Posniak, 64, was indicted in October for allegedly starting the Ham Lake fire, which did substantial damage in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. He pleaded not guilty to the charges last month in U.S. District Court in Duluth.

Posniak's lawyer and neighbors of the retired federal government employee confirmed that Posniak shot himself Tuesday evening in the backyard of his home.

"He was not the kind of person who could ever have imagined going to jail," neighbor Michael Collotta said.

The Ham Lake fire burned for more than

a week in May 2007,

damaging more than 75,000 acres of U.S. and Canadian forest land and destroying about 150 buildings worth $10 million. The fire cost state, local and federal agencies $11 million to extinguish.

It was the most destructive forest fire in Minnesota since a 1918 fire in the Cloquet area.

Posniak was indicted Oct. 20 in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis on 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 U.S. Forest Service officer. Prosecutors alleged that Posniak set fire to timber, underbrush, grass and other materials on May 5, 2007, then lied to Forest Service officers who questioned him.

Posniak's trial was scheduled to start Jan. 5 in Minneapolis. David Anderson, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, said the case probably will be closed "because there are no other defendants."

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 Posniak sometimes would walk through the neighborhood wearing shorts in the winter.

Collotta said he never spoke with Posniak about the fire but 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."

Posniak's lawyer, Mark Larsen, said he believed that the charges against his client were extreme. Larsen said he spoke to Posniak on Monday and that Posniak was "acute in his thinking and quite pleasant over the phone."