Three juveniles implicated in fire

Ron Burtz

Charges are pending against three Custer juveniles believed to have started the fire at Custer Community Center April 11. Custer County Sheriff’s investigator Lt. Steve McMillin said Monday that a tip from a member of the public led to determining the names of the suspects by late afternoon the next day.
McMillin said the suspects include two 14-year-olds and a 15-year-old who admitted to investigators they had been playing with fire in the building that afternoon.
Smoke was discovered coming from the northeast corner of the former Custer Elementary School by a deputy shortly before 6 p.m. that evening and the Custer Fire Department was on the scene in minutes. After determining the fire to be located in the gym and concession stand area, hose crews attacked the blaze from two directions and were able to knock it down fairly quickly.
A member of the State Fire Marshal’s Office who had been on the scene of a house and grass fire east of Keystone that afternoon arrived later and investigated the fire, finding a spent fire extinguisher and other possible evidence in the process. McMillin said the fire marshal also determined the fire had started on the north end of the gym near the concession stand. It had burned a pile of mats on the gym side of the wall and spread to the inside of the concession stand where it burned wooden cabinets and other combustibles.
Later, sheriff’s deputies also searched the building and found other possible evidence items, including a hand-held propane or acetylene torch which McMillin believes was used in conjunction with spray from aerosol cans to start the fire.
Treating the fire as one of suspicious origin, McMillin said deputies reviewed outside security camera videos from the nearby county library and he was preparing to take physical evidence into the state crime lab when the office received the call from a parent.
“Within a short time period we had the names of all three kids involved,” said McMillin. “They were interviewed and admitted their involvement in starting the fire.”
He said the boys confirmed they had gotten into the building and were lighting things on fire—such as a pile of papers and a box—and then putting them out with the extinguisher. Later they allegedly set fire to a vase containing artificial flowers, thought they had extinguished it and placed it in a wooden cabinet. However, the still-lit blaze spread to the wood cabinets on the north side of the gym and beyond that to the mats, then up the wall and eventually into the concession stand.  
McMillin said he is still awaiting final damage estimates which will determine the extent of the charges, but he says there was smoke and heat damage throughout the gym.
“The firefighters did a fantastic job of keeping it to that area,” he said.
McMillin said the suspects’ admissions have been documented and the report has been submitted to state’s attorney Tracy Kelly for review.
Eventual charges may include third degree burglary, intentional damage to property and reckless burning, which is a Class 4 felony.  
“We don’t believe it was their intention to burn the building down,” said McMillin. “However, they intentionally started things on fire, which resulted in the major fire starting.”
One charge off the table is arson because McMillin said that charge involves having to prove the suspect would have received either a financial gain or loss as a result of setting the fire.
McMillin did not state exactly how he believes the juveniles gained access to the building, but said there was evidence that other unauthorized persons had been in the building regularly.
“We found some other stuff in there not associated with the crime, but which were evidence of other people/kids being inside the building,” he said.
One means of entry was an open window on the second floor which could be climbed up to. He said the window has since been boarded up and the city is taking steps to better secure the building.
Once the state’s attorney determines the exact charges, McMillin said the suspects will probably be brought into court on a summons and warrants will be issued for their arrest.

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