June 16, 2024

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Woman’s Lincoln rental property burned in an electrical fire. Or was it an arson? | Crime and Courts

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She had been in the two-story home at 2346 C St. countless times before, but Mary O’Hare had never seen her property as she did Tuesday afternoon, more than a month after a fire broke out in the early-morning hours of March 19.

O’Hare, 68, had spent much of the last month consumed by the realities and questions and anger that the fire brought, but she had avoided the structure itself.

When she finally entered the house, she slowly climbed the dark staircase and encountered a second-floor apartment frozen in time. It was April 26. But on the second floor of the rental property O’Hare had owned and managed since the early 1990s, time had seemed to stop at 2:30 a.m. on March 19.

There were still dishes in the sink, and more left to dry on a half-melted drying rack. The towels in the linen closet were still folded neatly, but charred beyond recognition. A layer of soot and ash had settled over children’s toys, an empty bottle of wine on a bedroom nightstand and everything else O’Hare’s 20-year-old tenant left behind as she escaped out a second-floor window with her 1-year-old twin daughters.

The scene angered O’Hare.

“Somebody could have died,” she said, standing amid a blackened hallway where the fire caused $120,000 in damage, forced the relocation of five tenants, but, thankfully, injured no one.

O’Hare awoke to a police officer knocking on her door in the hours after the fire, which investigators initially ruled an accidental electrical fire, thought to have been caused by a faulty extension cord.

Immediately, she said, she suspected that assessment was wrong. And immediately, she said, she began sounding the alarm to police, to the fire investigators, to anyone who would listen.

“The renter’s boyfriend had threatened to burn the house down,” O’Hare said.

The problems began long before a Lincoln Police Department officer knocked on O’Hare’s door at 5:30 a.m. March 19, three hours after the fire had started in the staircase leading up to the second-floor unit, where the young mother and victim of domestic violence lived with her two daughters.

In fact, the problems started even before the woman had officially become a tenant in August. O’Hare, who connected with the woman through a local advocacy group, allowed her to move in before a lease was in place.

Ever since, 2346 C St. had become a frequent destination for Lincoln police officers, who responded to the residence 17 times from Aug. 6 to March 19, when a caller made a noise complaint about a party in Apartment No. 2, two hours and 18 minutes before the fire broke out.

The first call came on Aug. 6, listed as a simple assault in a LPD incident report. In Lancaster County court records, prosecutors called it domestic assault in the third degree.

The renter’s boyfriend, a 28-year-old man, was charged with the crime and taken to the county jail after he punched his girlfriend in the mouth, according to court filings. It marked the first time he was contacted and arrested at 2346 C St. It would not be the last.

Police were back at the property 11 days later, this time on a report of child abuse or neglect, with the woman’s daughters listed as the victims, according to an incident report.

But the domestic conflicts — calls for service revolving around the woman and her boyfriend — quieted for more than three months, in part because the boyfriend served 61 days in jail. He was released in mid-October.

On Nov. 12, police responded to the residence again on a reported domestic disturbance, the first in a string over the next three months that included three calls in December and six more in January, according to incident reports that O’Hare later requested from LPD as she and her son, Jake Pedersen, pleaded with the department to look closer at the fire.

Police arrived again at the apartment unit at 5:38 p.m. Feb. 12 on a matter initially described as a robbery. This time, it was O’Hare who called, on behalf of her tenant. The woman’s boyfriend had fled with her purse and phone after their latest argument, Officer Alan Grell said in affidavit for the man’s arrest.

Police found the man at his brother’s house later that night and arrested him, again, for alleged abuse of his girlfriend, who could not be reached for comment.

He was charged with third-degree domestic assault and resisting arrest — both enhanced because of prior offenses — and the man spent nearly a month in jail before posting bond March 4, according to court filings.

Two weeks later, prosecutors filed a motion to revoke his bond, citing recent contact with the woman, a violation of his bond conditions.

But Judge Laurie Yardley denied the motion after a March 15 hearing, and the man remained free as his case made its way through the courts.

Four days later, the converted house at 23rd and C streets caught fire.

O’Hare remembers the officer who first fielded her concerns about the man and the timing of the fire being sympathetic, taking her seriously. And she remembers the anger of the building’s downstairs tenant, a 36-year-old woman who had lived there for eight years, when O’Hare arrived at the property in the early morning hours of March 19.

“When I went over there that night, I asked the renter downstairs, ‘Do you think he did it?'” O’Hare recalled.

“She screamed at me and said, ‘Of course he did it.'”

Jason Relford, the city fire inspector who investigated the blaze, remembers the young mother suspecting arson too, but telling investigators she thought her downstairs neighbor had lit the fire, a story that Relford said “did not hold water.”

On the scene, Relford said he let the police department handle the potential criminal investigation, focusing his efforts on recreating the fire scene, and later, ruling it an accident.

It wasn’t for a few more days, Relford said, that he became aware of the prior investigations at the residence, and of the reported threats of arson — which are not documented in any public police documents.

In late March — in light of new information and initial findings from O’Hare’s insurance provider that indicated “human involvement,” according to O’Hare’s son, who has dealt with the insurer — Relford said the city’s Building and Safety Department changed its official designation from “electrical” to “undetermined” and under further investigation, as it waits  for a third-party test of potential accelerants used to fuel the blaze.

But the police department’s investigation, at least for now, remains dormant, as Pedersen, O’Hare’s son, relays the latest findings from the insurance company and pleads with the department to look further into the fire, he said.

In an email in late March, Lincoln Police Investigator Scott Parker said police “have no reason to believe that this fire was a result of arson or that any of the previous calls for service are related to the fire in question.

“However,” he said, “we are always open to following up on new information or leads as they become available.”

Follow-up questions about the investigation’s status sent last week to the department’s public information office were referred to Lincoln Fire and Rescue, and from there, back to Building and Safety.

Such has been the rigmarole in O’Hare and Pedersen’s attempts to spur further investigation, they both said. Pedersen described it as a broken process in which he and his mother feel like the only ones advocating for justice, trying to find the truth, even after their insurer already paid out their claim.

“We’ve got our money,” Pedersen said. “There’s no benefit — personal gain — for us to go down this path. There’s no personal gain for me to spend all this time, connecting all the dots together.”


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