DULUTH -- Stephen Posniak, who killed himself this week outside his Washington, D.C., home, was a lover of the outdoors "devastated" by his connection to one of the worst wildfires in Minnesota history, a family member said Wednesday. And many were saddened by his death, including a Gunflint Trail lodge owner who hosted Posniak and noted that the Ham Lake fire in May 2007 didn't kill anyone -- until now.
"He's the casualty of the Ham Lake fire," said Sue Ahrendt, co-owner of Tuscarora Lodge, where Posniak stayed before embarking on his annual canoe trips.
Posniak, 64, was scheduled to stand trial Jan. 5 in Minneapolis on charges that he'd let his campfire grow out of control in Minnesota's Arrowhead. He died in his yard Tuesday of a self-inflicted gunshot, a day after a judge ruled that statements Posniak made to investigators would be admitted in his trial. Federal prosecutors alleged Posniak initially lied to investigators.
"He loved the Boundary Waters. He loved the outdoors, and he was devastated by the fact that he may have harmed the placed he loved," said a woman who answered the telephone Wednesday at the Posniak home. She would identify herself only as a "close family member," saying attorneys were concerned Posniak's heirs might be sued for damages from the fire.
The victim's brother, John Posniak, confirmed they'd been advised not to talk about the fire, but he praised his brother as "a beautiful and doting family man," who left behind a wife and daughter.
"He was a great outdoorsman, starting from when he was a Boy Scout," said Posniak, 62, of Alexandria, Va. He was Stephen Posniak's only sibling. "He went to the Boundary Waters for 25 years, every year, just as the wildlife was coming out of hibernation," he said.
Posniak said his brother, a retired computer systems analyst for the federal government, gave no signs recently that he might take his life. "We saw each other at Thanksgiving and had a wonderful time," Posniak said. "He was a quiet guy who simply didn't talk about his feelings."
Defense attorney Mark Larsen called the suicide "a tragic, profound, unexpected event" that may have stemmed from Posniak being "overcharged" by the federal government.
Larsen said he'd planned to present evidence at trial of "alternative sources" for what became the fire, which burned 76,000 acres in Minnesota and Ontario, consuming 138 structures on the American side alone.
Larsen said he had also planned to argue that even if the fire originated at Posniak's campsite, there was no evidence Posniak willfully caused it. That allegation formed the basis for the single felony count, with a possible prison term of five years.
"The felony says you did it on purpose, and for somebody who has visited up there on almost an annual basis for ... years, that's like saying they purposefully set a church altar on fire," Larsen said.
Larsen said he received an "amicable call of empathy and concern" from Assistant U.S. Attorney William Otteson regarding the suicide. Larsen said he appreciated the call but feels the death could have been avoided if the U.S. Attorney's office had communicated with him and Posniak before presenting the case to a grand jury.
The U.S. Attorney's office for the district of Minnesota responded in a statement Wednesday that Posniak had been "properly charged with a felony and two misdemeanors, arising out of his admitted conduct ... . We feel for Mr. Posniak's family, but his defense counsel's suggestion that the United States is to blame for this unfortunate outcome is simply unwarranted."
Asked whether the federal government might pursue Posniak's estate to recoup some of the $10 million in fire suppression costs, the office, through spokesman David Anderson, said "there are potential civil remedies, and we are evaluating the government's options at this time."
Regarding financial responsibility, Larsen said one thing is certain: The government can't ask a judge to order criminal restitution because that requires a conviction.
"There was no conviction," Larsen said. "Steve died a presumptively innocent man."
Larry Oakes • 1-800-266-9648