OWATONNA — More than a year after two fires within two hours caused major damage to a home in Ellendale, two people are facing charges for arson and insurance fraud.
Mark Allan Misgen, 42, was charged with first-degree arson and insurance fraud, both felonies. The arson charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $20,000 fine. Sara Ellen Degen-Misgen was charged with aiding and abetting in first-degree arson and insurance fraud, both felonies.
According to a criminal complaint submitted to the court by the Steele County Sheriff's Office, the Ellendale Fire Department was called to 403 West 5th Ave. on Dec. 7 at about 1:50 a.m. Misgen had called 911.
Inside the residence, firefighters found a pan that had been left on the stove and partially burned paper smoldering on the counter. After removing the paper, venting the building and checking for hot spots, the fire department left the home at about 2:45 a.m.
Just over an hour later, the Ellendale Fire Department was dispatched to the residence again, finding the main floor and the second floor on the north side of the house fully engulfed. Firefighters had to fight the fire from the outside because the fire was too intense inside and there was the possibility of structural damage on the second floor, according to the complaint.
The Steele County Sheriff's Office investigator spoke with a neighbor who arrived home and was outside about 30 minutes before the second fire started. The neighbor reported seeing nothing unusual. The investigator also spoke with insurance adjuster on scene and learned the home was insured for $328,000 and there was a personal property policy for $229,500, according to the complaint.
During an interview with Misgen and Degen-Misgen on the afternoon following the fire, Misgen said he had been working at his restaurant in Lonsdale on Dec. 6, 2011, and then went to a basketball game in New Richland. He said he had gone home to get his wallet at about 8 p.m. and didn't smell any smoke. According to the complaint, Degen-Misgen said she had cooked Ramen noodles for two of their children and was using the stove at about 5:25 p.m. before leaving at about 5:45 p.m.
According to the complaint, Misgen said he had been contacted by one of his employees, and indicated the employee was having trouble locking up the restaurant in Lonsdale. Misgen got to the Medford area before learning the doors to the business had been locked, and he said he left to go back to Ellendale at about 11 p.m. or 11:30 p.m.
The couple said they met at a relative's house to give jumper cables to a family member. According to the complaint, Degen-Misgen said she left to go to Owatonna to buy duct tape, returning to the relatives residence at about 1 a.m. on Dec. 7, 2011.
After returning home, and apparently having car problems, the couple then drove back to the relative's home before returning at 1:50 a.m., at which time they smelled smoke, according to the complaint. The couple left the scene at about 3 a.m. to go stay with relatives.
Further investigation showed that the employee at the Lonsdale restaurant was not working the night of Dec. 6, 2011. The employee denied speaking with Misgen that night, saying he was at a family function. Phone records provided by the Misgen show no incoming calls to Misgen or Degen-Misgen's phone on the night in question.
An investigation by the State's Deputy Fire Marshal concluded the second fire had originated in a storage closet, four feet away from the stove area. The fire marshal concluded that some accelerant was likely used based on the rate of the fire's travel and spread.
According to the complaint, a further examination of the scene with an electrical engineer showed the electrical system did not play a role in the fire. The fire marshal concluded that the second fire was not a continuation of the first fire.
During an interview with neighbors of the Misgens, the neighbors said Misgen had returned to the house following the first fire and they could see him "monkeying around" in the house through a window, according to the complaint. The neighbors said Misgen was in the house for between five and 15 minutes before he left in Degen-Misgen's car. They reported seeing flames about 40 minutes later.
Investigators received a letter from James Michael Johnson, an inmate with the Arizona Department of Corrections who was a co-defendant in a case with Misgen in Dakota County in 2007. Johnson said Misgen had talked to him about fires and insurance fraud in 2007 when he was having financial difficulties, according to the complaint.
Further investigation by the sheriff's office showed the Misgens were having financial difficulties. They were behind on their house payments, still paying for their two restaurant businesses and Misgen owed child support and restitution to Dakota County, according to the complaint.
According to court documents, Misgen used credit card numbers from customers of Misgen’s M&S Auto Parts shop in Ellendale to create fake credit cards. They then allegedly used the fake cards to buy $20,000 worth of gift cards, electronics and other goods in Burnsville in November 2007. Court documents show the victims had only done business at the auto shop.
Four felony charges were filed against Misgen in December 2007 in Dakota County, and on April 28, 2009, a count of identity theft, credit card fraud and aiding and abetting credit card fraud were dismissed. He pleaded guilty to one count of receiving stolen property the same day, according to court records.
Misgen was ordered to pay $5,585 in restitution to six victims
In March of 2012, the couple filed a proof of loss to their insurance company seeking a total claim of more than $395,000. A written summary showed the Degen-Misgen had purchased isopropyl at the Owatonna Walmart on Dec. 7, 2011. Isopropyl can be used as an accelerant in fires and is difficult to detect because it quickly dissipates.
Both defendants will make their first appearance in Steele County District Court on Aug. 19.
Reach reporter Al Strain at 444-2376 or follow him on Twitter.com@OPPalstrain