"I started a fire. I tried to kill myself. I killed my wife. I stabbed her in the bedroom."

The caller told the Anoka County dispatcher that his name was Arthur Torgesen, that he tried to set himself on fire and that he did so because he and his wife were having financial problems. He had also been diagnosed with cancer recently, relatives said.

Torgesen, 63 -- a Vietnam veteran who neighbors say had a history of depression and alcohol-related troubles -- was charged Tuesday with second-degree murder in the death of his wife, Sherrill R. Harnden, 59, and first-degree arson of their Columbia Heights home on Friday.

Torgesen was sitting naked on a living room couch as smoke filled the house and his wife lay motionless in a bedroom engulfed by flames, said neighbor Reed Sprung, who hurried to the home across the street when he saw smoke. A gas can was found in the room, not far from Harnden's charred body, according to the criminal complaint filed in Anoka County.

His wife was asleep in bed, when Torgesen kissed her and then stabbed her, he told authorities. He held the 6 1/2-inch kitchen knife inside of her, waiting for her to die, he said.

But he wanted to die with her, he told authorities. He poured gasoline and lacquer thinner on his wife and himself and ignited it all with a lighter, according to court documents.

But he told a detective he didn't have the nerve to stay. The heat was too much. Even all the alcohol he said that he had consumed the night before, and the wine he drank just before starting the fire, couldn't dull the heat.

Hours before the fire, he made phone calls to his son and the victim's mother, Torgesen told authorities.

Three hours before Torgesen's desperate 911 call was made, Torgesen called Harnden's mother, Ann Harnden. It was 6 a.m. and Torgesen told her that Sherry loved her very much. Ann Harnden later told authorities that she knew that the couple were having financial problems and that he had cancer.

Within minutes, Torgesen called his son, Michael Torgesen, 30, leaving this message:

"Everything is over for me."

Vietnam started his problems

Michael Torgesen would tell authorities that his father suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from his experience in Vietnam. Neighbor Greg Reiner, a fellow Vietnam veteran, said Torgesen drank often and talked about being shot. He limped noticeably and walked with a cane.

"He wasn't an angel, and drinking was his big downfall," Tim Connelly, a veteran from Richfield, told the Star Tribune via e-mail. Connelly said he last saw Torgesen in the mid-1990s at a post-traumatic stress clinic at the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center, where Connelly was also a client.

"I wonder if Torgesen was still seeing anybody at the VA or if he gave up years ago," Connelly wrote.

Torgesen had been arrested at least 13 times for driving while under the influence, once for theft, another time for fleeing police, said Lt. Paul Sommer of the Anoka County Sheriff's Office. Neighbors cringed last week at the memory of Torgesen being brought home at 3 a.m. by police or taxi and then lying in the middle of the street drunk and screaming at his wife. Police were frequent visitors to the house, neighbors and Sommer said.

Torgesen and Harnden had been together for several years, but had been married only about six months, friends Dennis and Scharline Olson told authorities.

It was the Olsons who received a call about 9 a.m. Friday from Torgesen. He was going to kill his wife, he told them, according to the complaint. He asked them to give him a half an hour -- and then call 911 to come get the dog.

Torgesen had talked about killing himself and burning down the house previously, Dennis Olson told authorities. But this call was different ... maybe something about the mention of the dog, the Olsons said. This time, they drove to Torgesen's home immediately to find smoke billowing from the house.

He admitted stabbing wife

When police arrived at the house in the 4300 block of Arthur Street NE., Sgt. John Rogers saw a nude Torgesen attempting to get covered up.

"I killed her. I killed her," Torgesen was heard telling others. "I stabbed her. I started her on fire." He had meant to stab himself, he told them.

"Somebody -- one of his friends -- tried to get into the bedroom, but the flames were too intense at that point," Sprung told the Star Tribune. "He said she [Harnden] was not moving. Not a bit. She was gone."

Suffering from severe burns to his back and also burns to his arms and chest, Torgesen was taken to an area hospital, where he could be released by week's end, Sommer said.

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419