Minneapolis neighborhood hit by 17-fire arson spree

  • Article by: KELLY SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 13, 2011 - 6:18 AM

Vehicles, garages and bags of leaves were torched overnight in the Longfellow area of south Minneapolis.

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Homeowner Shawn Junjak talked about how he and his little daughter had bagged up the leaves they left by the garage that vandals burned and set the garage on fire in Minneapolis Friday night. The Junjaks, who have two daughters, lost their van, the girls' first bikes and Shawn's Star Wars collection, as well as other personal items.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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Shawn Junjak spent Friday afternoon raking leaves with his 3- and 4-year-old daughters, then stuffing the leaves in three garbage bags that he set behind his garage in south Minneapolis.

At 10:45 p.m., his phone rang with a call from his neighbor: His garage was engulfed in flames, apparently because someone had set the leaves on fire.

It was one of 17 fires set during a four-hour span Friday night in an unusual string of suspected arson incidents within a 13-block area near West River Parkway.

At one point, Minneapolis police scrambled 20 squad cars from all five precincts -- up to 40 officers in all -- to the area in an intense search for suspects, who apparently set the fires randomly throughout the Longfellow neighborhood.

"That's very unusual," Sgt. William Palmer said of the police response.

No injuries were reported and no arrests had been made late Saturday.

"We've always enjoyed our neighborhood," said Shelly Junjak about their home of three years off 38th Avenue South and 40th Street East. "We're hoping it's just a couple of kids who are just misguided."

Most of the 17 fires appeared to be sparked with leaves -- 10 fires started in leaf piles or in garbage bags -- but fires also hit three vehicles, two garages and a garbage dumpster. A small fire was also lit along a retaining wall on the West River Parkway bike trail. The fires were set between 8:30 p.m. Friday and 12:30 a.m. Saturday in an area bounded by West River Parkway, Snelling Avenue S., E. 32nd Street and E. 45th Street.

The arson spree, the Junjaks said, follows a noticeable rise in petty crime in the Longfellow neighborhood since summer. Just on their block, there have been two burglaries. "It's definitely gotten worse," Shelly Junjak said.

In July, burglars shot and killed a Longfellow homeowner after he confronted them. While police said then that violent crime was on the decline, residents said car thefts, gang graffiti and loud firecrackers going off throughout the night had risen recently.

On Saturday, near 33rd Avenue S., a vehicle sat with a charred front side, melted tires and broken glass.

Farther east, Sandra Peterson and her husband were alarmed by the sound of firetruck sirens echoing in the area Friday. But, she said, their neighborhood of 14 years is usually safe.

"Longfellow's a good neighborhood," she said as she raked leaves near 45th Avenue S. "It's a tight community; we watch out for each other."

For the Junjaks, the neighbor's watchful eye came too late. They estimate it will cost up to $40,000 to rebuild their garage and repair water damage to the inside of their car, which was parked inside the garage when firefighters arrived with hoses. All that was left of their alley-facing garage wall were charred trusses.

In the future, they said, authorities advised them not to put out garbage bags, recycling bins or leaf bags until the morning of pickup.

That might not have helped Cory Lindstrom, whose 2000 Ford Focus parked near Snelling Avenue and E. 44th Street was destroyed in Friday's fires.

Lindstrom bought the car two days ago to sell, and it didn't yet have insurance. "It's done, it's gone," he said, shaking his head.

The title for the car was expected to arrive Monday.

Anyone with information about the arson incidents is asked to call 612-673-2549.

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141

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