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Fire marshal: String of fires linked to 7-year-old boy

Posted: April 8, 2012 - 12:11am

The police and fire departments announced Friday they have linked a 7-year-old boy to at least five arsons at various locations in Juneau over the past four to five months.

Fire Marshal Dan Jager said the boy, whose name is being withheld since he’s a juvenile, caused about $1,000 in damage by setting small fires in the restrooms at Harborview Elementary School and the Terry Miller Legislative Building, an outside grass fire at the corner of Fifth and Franklin streets and two fires at Fred Meyer.

“He won’t be going to jail,” Fire Chief Richard Etheridge said in a phone interview, adding the case would be forwarded to probation officers at the Johnson Youth Center.

The boy admitted to setting the small blazes with a lighter he found, he told Jager, the deputy fire marshal and a police officer during interviews at his grandmother’s house and police station Wednesday afternoon, Jager said.

There was no immediate indication why he did it, whether he was troubled or if he just had a “real strong fascination” with fire, Jager said. But it was incredibly dangerous, Jager said.

“He has no idea how big the fires could have gotten. He could have gotten hurt, and other people could have been hurt because some of those buildings were occupied,” Jager said in a phone interview Saturday. “Being that age, I don’t think he understood the magnitude of what could have happened.”

The boy’s grandmother, who is his legal guardian, expressed surprise to learn her grandson was playing with fire and was very concerned, Jager said.

“It definitely got her attention, and I think she’s going to be a big help making sure that the boy understands what he’s doing,” Jager said.

The boy was caught after surveillance footage at the Terry Miller building captured him entering and exiting the bathroom in the building the same time as the fire.

The fire department was actually never called to the building since a maintenance worker extinguished the fire himself, Jager said. But the worker contacted police and submitted video footage.

The worker also was the one to identify the boy, Jager said. The worker showed a still picture of the boy to his daughter, who is around the same age, to see if she recognized him, and she did, Jager said.

About 30 minutes before to the Terry Miller fire, the fire department crews responded to a small grass fire outside at Fifth and Franklin.

“That one we knew was kind of suspicious because that location outside, a fire doesn’t just happen,” Jager said, saying that incident prompted the police and fire department to link up their investigation efforts.

Using the name the maintenance worker provided, police looked the boy up in their system and found his address, Jager said.

Jager said police discovered the boy was actually the same culprit in two earlier fires at Fred Meyer. He had previously confessed to setting fire to plastic storage totes in the outdoor center at Fred Meyer in December, as well as another fire in the Fred Meyer restroom in January.

That case had already been sent to the juvenile justice system.

It’s not yet known how many fires the boy started, but it’s possible there’s more, Jager said.

He said someone set a toilet paper dispenser on fire at City Hall in the public restroom in late January and early February.

Police said earlier this week that a 7-year-old child was suspected of setting paper towels on fire at a restaurant on Fourth Street. Total damage was worth $100.

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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