Council Bluff Has Surge in “Set” Fires
The Council Bluff, Iowa, area witnessed a serious increase in the number of set fires in the period January through November, 1951.
A 16-year-old boy who “likes to assist firemen” confessed to setting 16 fires in the city during the past year, after questioning by fire department officials and E. J. Stebbins, Iowa assistant state fire marshal. “I like to set fires” he said in a signed statement “because I like to assist firemen in putting them out.”
The boy would receive local newspapers for delivery at a fire station, and would put in his spare time loafing at this station. There seemed to be many fires in this particular locality without any apparent reason for them, and this lad would be either at the fire station when the alarm came in, or would arrive at the fire in time to help the firemen. He was a very hard worker at the fires, according to Fire Chief Waldo Merrill and would follow the company back to the station and help reload the hose.
The boy was suspected but no one was found who could place him at the scene of the fire at the time of its start. On a hunch, Captain James Burke, who was appointed Chief of the Department’s newly-created Fire Prevention Bureau, in September 1, 1951, the boy was picked up for questioning about an unexplained fire in the Thomas Jefferson High School, after which he confessed. It was disclosed that he used a blow torch on the high school door.
Juvenile authorities took charge of the youth and inasmuch as the boy’s family was leaving the city for Eugene, Ore., the court permitted him to depart with his folks. The youth confessed to setting fire to two houses (one twice), three sheds (one twice), three cars and six garages.
Series of Fires in Opposite End of Town
A series of unexplained fires continued on the other side of Council Bluffs. One most destructive of which was in the First Presbyterian Church in September, 1950.
Inspector Burke became curious about a 22-year-old man after he saw him acting suspiciously during the course of a fire in the Goodwill Industries building on Nov. 15 last. This man was taken across the street to a police station for questioning, with particular reference to the church fire. Following this questioning, he was given a psychiatric examination after which a “feeble minded” complaint was filed against him, when he admitted setting the church fire.
Medical authorities declared that the man has a “mental age of 5 or 6 years” but was telling the truth about the fires which he admitted setting. These totaled about 10 in all. In addition, he admitted to turning in many false alarms during the past 15 months. The examination included the use of “truth serum.”
Authorities sought to connect this arsonist with the $250,000 Katelman Building fire of November, 1950.
In explanation of his acts, the confessed arsonist said in a signed statement he obtained a sexual satisfaction in watching the fires. Chief Merrill and Inspector Burke said the prisoner entered the church through the front door, passed through the sanctuary, forced a door into the pastor’s study, rifled the desk drawers and tore pages out of books to start the fire.
Inspector Burke, who is credited with running down these arsonists, joined the Fire Department on July 1, 1938. He served in the Seebees 1942 to 1945. According to Chief Merrill, picking up two persons in one month for starting fires is something unusual for his department.