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    Default Wyoming Arson Suspect Arrested -Multiple Fires

    Police name suspect
    But no charges yet in downtown fires

    By Juliette Rule
    rep9@wyomingnews.com
    Published in the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle

    CHEYENNE - More than a year after fire leveled half of a historic block in downtown Cheyenne, police have arrested a suspect.

    He is no stranger to police - or firefighters, for that matter.

    Wyatt T. Johnson, 29, was arrested two weeks ago for allegedly sparking grass fires on private property within the county between Dec. 24 and Jan. 23.

    On Tuesday, he was arrested for first-degree arson of Mary's Bake Shoppe and Wyoming Home and on one charge of burglary for entering the bakery the night a fire was deliberately set in the West Lincolnway business' basement.

    Two days after his arrest in the county case, Johnson was questioned about the 1998 arson of a downtown carpet business. Johnson denied starting that fire, but police say he has since confessed to setting the blaze in the basement of Mary's Bake Shoppe on Dec. 27, 2004.

    That fire burned for more than 12 hours, threatening lives and swallowing millions in personal and business property. Three stories of the building that housed Mary's Bake Shoppe and retailer Wyoming Home fell in on top of one another as flames rushed through hidden hallways, complicating the fight waged from atop ladder trucks and from inside, where firefighters broke through walls and doorways to chase flames.

    A lengthy investigation determined the fire was incendiary - a word investigators use in place of arson. They knew where it was started, and, through forensic science, they learned what started it. But they didn't know who, and after ruling out electricity and natural gas as causes, it was clearly no accident.

    The fire destroyed Mary Coonts' bakery, a business she hasn't been able to reopen. It handed Sue Miller, owner of Wyoming Home, a long list of challenges. She renovated the space she owned and considered the historic value of neighboring buildings, including the building to the west of her storefront where legendary stock detective Tom Horn supposedly confessed to murder.

    Miller has since re-opened. A gaping hole marks where Mary's Bake Shoppe once offered cinnamon rolls and other treats.

    While many here had doubts an arrest ever would be made, Cheyenne Fire and Rescue Chief Scott Alvord said Thursday he remained confident an arrest would be made sooner or later.

    For police, Johnson's arrest and subsequent "confession" was anti-climactic, Lt. Rob Korber said Thursday. He was hesitant to take pats on the back from Mayor Jack Spiker, Police Chief Bob Fecht and others. He instead credited a multi-agency effort, including help from a federal agency, Cheyenne Fire and Rescue and the Laramie County Sheriff's Department.

    But it was Korber who decided to interview Johnson on Sunday, checking him out of the jail and bringing him over to the police department to do so.

    The case is far from open and shut, as investigators emphasize the need to learn even more as they ready the case for prosecution.

    For the weeks before his arrest in the county case, Johnson had piqued the suspicions of firefighters and law enforcement.

    He always seemed to be hanging around fires. Sometimes he even called them in to dispatchers. And when he was arrested Feb. 10, a missing firefighter radio was discovered in his possession.

    Johnson seemed intrigued by and even eager to learn more about fires. He was keenly, perhaps oddly, interested in firefighters' work, and he expressed intense interest in becoming a firefighter, according to court records filed in the grass fire case.

    It seemed fair to police to quiz Johnson about unsolved suspicious fires here, and Korber started with that carpet warehouse fire that was started on Halloween night in 1998, knowing he eventually would be asking Johnson about the downtown fire too, he said.

    In 1998, Johnson lived downtown. He had moved here from the Casper area just four years earlier, according to police.

    Firefighters remembered seeing him at the 1998 scene on Seymour Avenue, but only recently did law enforcement learn Johnson had been hanging around the downtown fire. And with Johnson's denial of that warehouse fire, Korber and fellow detective Tom Garrison steered the conversation toward the December 2004 fire, they explained Thursday.

    Slowly, they let Johnson lead them through the steps of starting the fire in a Wednesday interview. Some of it doesn't quite add up to investigators, who emphasize they are continuing to work the case. But, according to police, this is what Johnson had to say:

    He parked a couple of blocks away. The bakery door was unlocked when Johnson entered. He locked the door behind him and went to the basement.

    He had only a book of matches, a point that leaves investigators wondering how the accelerant got to the basement and how Johnson happened upon an unlocked door.

    "We're not quite sure if the business was accidentally left unlocked," Korber said. "He indicated he didn't bring accelerant with him."

    The investigation revealed something akin to gasoline was used to start the fire in a few spots in the basement. It might have been jet fuel or even paint thinner. Forensic science can't clarify that, but the fire likely burned for hours before a cleaning woman at Wyoming Home noticed the smoke and called 911 at 10:36 p.m. By then, whoever started it was long gone.

    As the fire burned and more agencies were called in to help, Johnson returned to the scene, according to police.

    That alone isn't unusual - many people stood by idly, fascinated by flames and firefighting equipment - but unlike every other rubber-necking gawker, Johnson was a regular at fire scenes.

    After allegedly setting the fires, Johnson left the bakery through the front door, which he either locked behind him, or he simply let the automatically locking door close behind him. Police aren't sure.

    As the investigation unfolds, detectives are sowing their doubts: Johnson worked as a handyman for Wyoming Home sometime during 2002 or 2003. Through that job, he might have had access to rooftop entries into the bakery and the retail shop. Perhaps that's how he got into the building, Korber and Garrison said.

    Or he might have had a duplicate key made before he turned over to Miller any set of keys he might have had, they added.

    Investigators let Johnson take them further in his story when they asked why he started it.

    "He said he felt the building was structurally unsound and that he had brought that (to Wyoming Home's) attention," Korber said.

    It wasn't necessarily a favor Johnson thought he was doing.

    "He might have been thinking, 'This will burn better,'" Fecht said.

    There are three reasons arsonists use to start fires: revenge, monetary gain and compulsion, Korber said. So far, investigators believe a compulsion to start fires led Johnson to the bakery and the basement.

    He wasn't particularly bitter about his departure from Wyoming Home, judging from both his telling and that gleaned by police from Miller, Garrison said.

    It doesn't seem he stood to gain financially by starting a fire.

    But his behavior, including fibbing to his girlfriend and others that he was a volunteer firefighter, suggest he was obsessed with fires and firefighting.

    Korber is calling his talk with Johnson a "confession" because "Once he started telling it, it flowed much more rapidly," he said.

    A confession isn't generally enough to bring charges, so Korber said he's relying on the extra information Johnson had and a gut feeling.

    "The description of some of the items in the basement . and who's to say? Am I 110 percent sure? I mean he knew enough. And just the demeanor of the interview, I feel he was involved," he explained.

    Korber also points to Johnson's history, which is littered with allegations of misconduct. That includes the theft of a Wyoming Highway Patrol trooper's radio. He pleaded guilty to that charge in October, and in light of the grass fire charges, he faces the revocation of his probation in that misdemeanor case, according to court records.

    There still are many unanswered questions, and police said they hope Coonts will be more helpful than they say she's been in the 14 months since the blaze leveled her business.

    She's hired attorneys to represent her interests. City officials and police say she's stymied investigative efforts, though it's remained an open and active case. They last had contact with her Jan. 26.

    Though Coonts didn't return a call Thursday from the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, she has publicly said she's told police everything she knows, and city officials only want to slander her.

    Within that limited frame of information, officials say Coonts has shared is the mystery of access: Coonts has stated clearly the building was locked and the ovens turned off when she left the shop that night to celebrate the holidays, while Johnson allegedly told police the building was left unlocked.

    Authorities have repeatedly said this: The door was locked when firefighters were forced to break it down that night.

    Johnson is expected to make an initial appearance on these newest charges today. While the Laramie County District Attorney's Office had filed the paperwork, a judge had not signed the document by 4:30 p.m. Thursday.

    If convicted of burglary, Johnson faces 10 years in prison. The arson conviction carries as many as 20 years in prison and a fine of $20,000. He also could be ordered to pay restitution, a tally that could fall in the millions of dollars.
    Last edited by mtnfireguy; 02-24-2006 at 11:27 AM.
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    This is a scary dude. They ought to seek the assistance of the NAtional Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime. They can provide lines of questioning and analytical assistance in determining whether or not this guy has been involved in other serial arsons.

    Just one question:
    The investigation revealed something akin to gasoline was used to start the fire in a few spots in the basement. It might have been jet fuel or even paint thinner. Forensic science can't clarify that, but the fire likely burned for hours before a cleaning woman at Wyoming Home noticed the smoke and called 911 at 10:36 p.m. By then, whoever started it was long gone.
    Is this the press just getting it wrong?

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    Default Update

    Johnson formally charged


    By Juliette Rule
    rep9@wyomingnews.com
    Published in the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle

    CHEYENNE - The man accused of starting the 2004 downtown blaze was formally charged with arson Friday as a felony count of sparking a recent grass fire in the county was dismissed.

    Wyatt Johnson, 29, is being held on $100,000 cash bond. He is accused of starting the fire that burned half of an historic city block and demolished two businesses in December 2004.

    Johnson came to the attention of authorities after he was spotted at a series of grass fires set in the county between Dec. 24, 2005, and Jan. 23.

    Investigators say he admitted to starting the downtown fire when he was asked about it and an unsolved 1998 arson.

    With the charges filed late Thursday by Laramie County assistant district attorney Craig Jones also came the dismissal of charges in the recent grass fires.

    In that case, one charge was felony third-degree arson and two misdemeanor counts of stealing a Laramie County Fire District 2 radio and failing to extinguish a second grass fire.

    Jones refused to comment on the decision to dismiss those charges, citing the ongoing investigation downtown.

    "When that's cleared up, we'll give you an answer to that," Jones said Friday.

    According to court records, Johnson worked alone in setting the downtown fire, bringing only matches and a flashlight with him. He didn't bring accelerants with him to Mary's Bake Shoppe that night. Authorities say three small fires were deliberately set in the basement of that business, which was destroyed in the fire.

    He allegedly said he did that after parking his Jeep a few blocks away from the bakery and neighboring business Wyoming Home on 17th Street.

    Johnson "could not remember if the front door was locked, but he does remember locking it behind him and entering the kitchen area," Cheyenne police Lt. Rob Korber wrote in his affidavit.

    The affidavit goes on to explain that after allegedly setting the fires in the basement, Johnson drove around the city before returning to the scene.
    Buckle Up, Slow Down, Arrive Alive
    "Everybody Goes Home"

    IACOJ 2003

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