Ham Lake fire suspect was questioned as flames raged

The Ham Lake wildfire was only hours old and still raging nearby when law-enforcement officers first questioned Stephen George Posniak about where he was when the fire started.

Stephen George Posniak
Stephen George Posniak (left) is accused of starting the destructive Ham Lake fire in May 2007. (2008 FILE / News Tribune)

The Ham Lake wildfire was only hours old and still raging nearby when law-enforcement officers first questioned Stephen George Posniak about where he was when the fire started.

Posniak, the Washington, D.C., man charged with allowing his campfire to blow out of control on the morning of May 5, 2007, talked to officers at Tuscarora Lodge that same day, according to testimony presented Monday in U.S. District Court in Duluth.

But while officers identified their primary suspect within hours of the fire starting, Posniak was not arrested or charged until 17 months later, when federal prosecutors secured a grand jury indictment. Prosecutors have declined to explain the delay.

The Ham Lake fire burned across 75,000 acres -- 118 square miles -- along the Gunflint Trail in Minnesota and into Ontario. It cost $11 million to battle and destroyed nearly 150 buildings worth more than $10 million. It was the largest and costliest wildfire in Minnesota since 1918.

Earlier this month, Posniak pleaded not guilty to one count of setting timber afire, one count of leaving a fire unattended and unextinguished, and one count of giving false information to a U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer. He was back in court Monday for a pretrial hearing. He is scheduled to stand trial starting Jan. 5 in federal court in Minneapolis.


It became clear Monday that Posniak's defense will focus on whether the criminal act charged was "willful"-- a critical factor for the felony count of setting timber afire to apply. Mark Larsen, Posniak's defense lawyer, said the wildfire was not willful, noting it was spurred by drought conditions.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Otteson said the "willful" requirement need only apply to starting the original campfire, adding that the ultimate determination probably will be made by a jury.

Larsen also asked Magistrate Judge Raymond Erickson to dismiss two of the three counts against his client and to exclude from evidence the statements Posniak made to officers on the day the fire started.

Larsen said the charge of making false statements is unclear, noting that his client was questioned at least four times over four days.

"My client has [a] right to know what crime is alleged," Larsen told the judge.

Erickson will make a decision on the defense motions sometime in December.

Also Monday, Larsen tried to establish that Posniak was not given a Miranda warning and was not told he was a possible suspect when Cook County Sheriff's Deputy Tim Weitz and U.S. Forest Service Officer Barry Huber questioned him separately on the day the fire started.

Posniak had canoed out of the Ham Lake area and was at Tuscarora Lodge, on Round Lake along the Gunflint Trail, when he was questioned. The fire narrowly missed the lodge; nearby trees were still on fire when the officers arrived.


Weitz said he was asked to interview Posniak based on information from the lodge's owner, Andy Ahrendt. Weitz said he talked to Posniak for five to six minutes and did not consider him a suspect at that point but rather someone who might have information about how the fire started.

Larsen implied that Posniak was told to stay at the lodge, even though other guests had been evacuated.

Huber arrived later and questioned Posniak again, at one point challenging Posniak's account that he was on Cross Bay Lake, not Ham Lake, when the fire started. Huber already had received a tip from another group that had canoed across Ham Lake and had seen a man matching Posniak's description camped where the fire started.

According to testimony Monday, Posniak was questioned again May 6 in Grand Marais by Huber and again by a special agent for the Forest Service on May 8, when he was told he was a suspect and apparently acknowledged camping on Ham Lake the morning of the fire.

If convicted, Posniak faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on the felony count as well as six months each for the misdemeanor counts.

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