Juneau fire marshal recalls intense experience of Holy Trinity arson

Etheridge helped battle church blaze, investigate the case

Posted: Monday, January 29, 2007

Days after a 2006 blaze that destroyed a historic downtown church, Juneau Fire Marshal Rich Etheridge heard an interesting rumor.

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Somewhere in town, there was a man with telltale burns on his hands and face.

Etheridge and a team of investigators searched medical records and discovered that a burn victim was treated March 12, the day of the fire at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. In the records, they found the name of Robert Huber. In the interviews that followed, they found something else.

"He didn't have any eyebrows," Etheridge said.

Huber, 25, was sentenced to eight years in prison this month after pleading guilty to first-degree arson in October.

He was arrested March 24 after setting the fire that caused about $2.25 million in damage and left three people homeless. He started it on a boat parked in a driveway on Gold Street because he was mad about being kicked out of a party, officials said. But the flames spread to the church and a house.

The case was investigated by a team that included the Juneau police, fire officials and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. One of the team's key members was Etheridge, a 33-year-old born and raised in Juneau.

He worked round the clock after the fire, plowing through dozens of interviews.

He recalled the investigation as one of the most intense experiences of his career. He also battled the blaze. The spray off the hoses blew back into the firefighters' faces, he said.

"It was bitter cold," Etheridge said. "While we were fighting the fire, you had to break the ice off our bunker coats."

Etheridge, a father of three, became fire marshal about four years ago. Described by Fire Chief Eric Mohrmann as "a fast learner with excellent skills," Etheridge was promoted to his position after being with the department for only six months.

His first brush with the world of fire engines and emergency calls came in 1991, when he signed up with the Glacier Volunteer Fire Department. During his youth, he earned his cash through retail jobs.

In 1998, he became an Alaska State Trooper, stationed in Soldotna and Talkeetna. He kept that up for four years, until the Capital City Fire and Rescue Department offered him a job as a fire prevention officer.

"He is an excellent employee," Mohrmann said. "I can always count on him to go above any of the requirements that I make of him."

As for Etheridge, he credits the success of the Huber investigation to the law enforcement team and a tipster who pointed them in the right direction. Without the help, the case might not have been resolved as quickly.

In fact, the suspect was able to walk out of the fire department after his first interview, Etheridge said. Huber answered some questions at the station, but he kept his burned hands in his pockets and wore a hat low on his face, Etheridge said.

Huber didn't stay free for long. Twelve days after the fire, he was arrested.

"Witnesses really put forth the effort to make themselves available and help out when they could," Etheridge said.

• Ken Lewis can be reached at ken.lewis@juneauempire.com.



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