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Westbrook man charged in alleged arson

WINDOM -- Charges were filed this week in Cottonwood County District Court against a Westbrook man accused of burning down his garage in April.

Mark Messer, 38, is charged with second-degree arson of a building valued at more than $1,000.

The complaint states the fire took place at approximately 5 p.m. April 28. A fire at a detached garage at Messer's residence was reported by neighbors, and when the fire department arrived there was smoke pouring from the roof eaves and around the doors. One of the firefighters had passed the garage on his way to the fire station and saw one overhead door closed and the other opened, but when the department arrived on the scene, they saw both overhead doors were closed. They made an exterior attack by shattering a window and spraying water into the northeast stall of the garage, where they had observed flames. A vehicle was parked in the south stall of the garage and the fire was in front of the car.

Messer told them he had been attempting to jump start the vehicle.

On May 6, a fire/arson investigator arrived at the scene. An insurance investigator had already reported he believed the fire was arson. A new insurance policy had been written on the residence in February and was revised in March to include the garage.

The exam of the garage revealed the fire had originated along the east wall of the south stall of the garage. The front of the vehicle inside sustained radiant heat damage, but minimal damage to the engine compartment, indicating the fire did not start in the compartment. The east wall, lined with a wooden work bench and wooden drawers and shelves, was partially consumed by fire, exposing the heavily charred interior of the garage's cedar siding. In the open area below the work bench consumed by fire, the arson investigator discovered the remains of two red plastic gasoline containers and the melted remains of a kerosene container. Examination of the burn pattern, the complaint states, "clearly showed the fire originated in the northeast corner of the south garage stall, on the storage shelves below the work bench where both combustibles and ignitable liquids were stored."

On May 11, the investigator interviewed Messer, who said he had been the last person to leave the garage. When the investigator stated the fire was intentionally set, Messer allegedly stated he didn't set the fire and would be willing to take a polygraph test. The test was administered May 27, and Messer failed. An additional interview was conducted with Messer, and his story changed.

He told authorities the fire was an accident -- that he had left the garage that evening with his wife and daughter, then gone back into the garage. He stated he decided to commit suicide by wrapping the chain from a swag ceiling light fixture around his neck. The garage ceiling, however, is 7 feet high, and Messer is 6 feet tall and weighs about 260 pounds. He said he lit a cigarette as he was attempting to hang himself, and the ash fell off the cigarette and onto some combustibles on the floor in front of the workbench. He said he then left the garage to cook supper. Approximately five minutes later, he said, the garage was on fire.

The investigator concluded available combustibles were intentionally set on fire by a human act using an open flame device such as matches or a lighter. All accidental causes, including smoking or a spark from a vehicle battery, were eliminated as potential causes. There was insufficient time from when Messer left the garage to when witnesses discovered smoke coming from the garage for a cigarette or spark to cause the fire, the investigator reported.