Pyromania diagnosed in ex-fire chief who set fires in Superior National Forest

  • Article by: RANDY FURST , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 4, 2014 - 11:46 PM

Ryan Scharber set a series of suspicious fires in Superior National Forest and then tried to deflect blame, prosecutors say.

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Ryan Scharber, former Babbitt fire chief.

The former fire chief of Babbitt, Minn., who is awaiting sentencing for setting a series of fires in the Superior National Forest, has been diagnosed as a pyromaniac, according to a prosecutor quoted in a document filed Tuesday in federal court in Minneapolis.

Ryan G. Scharber, 30, who resigned as chief of the St. Louis County community’s volunteer fire department in December 2012, should be given a five-year sentence, based on federal sentencing guidelines, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Dunne argued in the memorandum. Scharber’s attorney is seeking a downward departure from that sentence.

In the memorandum, Dunne disputed Scharber’s contention, contained in a presentence report, that he set the fires “to get out of the house for a few hours to get relief from his newborn child’s acid reflux.” The prosecutor said Scharber never offered that excuse during an interview with investigators in which he eventually confessed.

“The psychiatrist at the Range Mental Health Center diagnosed the defendant with pyromania,” Dunne wrote. “The real reason behind the defendant’s criminal conduct in this case was that diagnosis.”

In an agreement with prosecutors, Scharber pleaded guilty Nov. 22 to two counts — setting one fire on U.S. forest land in the Superior National Forest and attempted arson of a building at Mattila’s Birch Lake Resort in Babbitt. Altogether, he admitted to setting nine fires, plus the attempted arson at the resort, over 13 months in 2010 and 2011, Dunne wrote.

While he was fire chief, Scharber “attempted to steer law enforcement toward other suspects for these suspicious fires,” Dunne wrote. During the investigation, Scharber asked investigators to set up a pole camera outside the Babbitt Volunteer Fire Department to watch for suspicious activity by any of the department’s firefighters, according to Dunne.

After evidence pointed to Scharber as the prime suspect, he was confronted during a nearly five-hour interview on Dec. 19, 2012, at the headquarters of the Babbitt Volunteer Fire Department.

“During the initial 2½ hours of this recorded interview, the defendant did not admit responsibility to any of the suspicious fires,” Dunne wrote. “To the contrary, the defendant attempted to deflect blame and steer the investigators in the direction of other possible suspects for these suspicious fires, including former and current [Babbitt volunteer] firefighters.”

Only after investigators showed him the evidence they had uncovered did Scharber confess, the Dunne memorandum says. Two days later, Scharber resigned as chief and delivered a handwritten letter of apology to his fellow firefighters.

Since his confession, there have been no more suspicious fires, Dunne wrote.

Arguments for leniency

In seeking a shorter sentence, his attorney, Joseph Tamburino, wrote on Feb. 14 that when Scharber pleaded guilty, he cooperated with authorities and showed “extreme remorse.” He has demonstrated willingness to seek and enter therapy for his behavior and has the support of his family and community members, wrote his attorney in seeking a downward departure from sentencing guidelines.

Tamburino also said that the government has not shown that Scharber’s intent was malicious. He set “small fires in small unpopulated areas,” Tamburino said, and has no criminal history.

“He never intended that the fires destroy large amounts of property or endanger the lives or well-being of anyone in the community,” the attorney said.

However, prosecutors say the fires put pedestrians and motorists at risk, and that firefighters, police officers and emergency responders faced danger when they responded to the calls.

Scharber also submitted numerous false claims to the U.S. Forest Service and the state Department of Natural Resources about costs incurred by his fire department.

“The defendant utterly violated the trust the public granted to him as fire chief in Babbitt,” Dunne wrote.

Caught acting oddly

A series of about 39 “suspicious fires/arsons” in Babbitt and the Superior National Forest in the summer and fall of 2011 prompted separate investigations by the U.S. Forest Service, the State Fire Marshal’s Office, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the DNR and the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office, and led to a joint investigation in May 2012. Pole cameras were set up, GPS tracking devices were used and cellphone records were obtained under court orders. Two searches were made of Scharber’s residence and 34 people were interviewed.

The breakthrough in the case came in December 2011, when the owner of the Mattila Birch Lake Resort saw Scharber emerge from behind a storage shed and garage, claiming to have gone there to urinate. But the area was so remote, Dunne wrote, that Scharber’s claim did not make sense, and after he left, the owner followed footprints in the snow and found a gasoline can behind the building.

The owner immediately called authorities.

Days later, having learned that the owner had approached police, Scharber returned to retrieve a propane torch he had left behind the building, according to Dunne’s memorandum.

Scharber will be sentenced April 10 in Duluth by U.S. District Judge John Tunheim.

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224

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