OWATONNA — Jurors took a short time to reach a unanimous verdict Tuesday in the arson trial of Mark Allan Misgen, finding the 43-year-old Ellendale man guilty of first-degree arson and insurance fraud, both felonies.
The conviction stems from two fires in 2011 that destroyed the family’s home.
The verdict came on the seventh day of trial, which began with the jurors hearing closing statements from both sides. Steele County Attorney Dan McIntosh reviewed his case that related Misgen to the fires that happened within hours of each other.
“He had the motive, he had the means, and he had the opportunity,” McIntosh said, facing the jury.
According to court documents, the first fire was called in by Misgen at about 1:50 a.m., Dec. 7, 2011, which was thought to be started by some paper on a stove that had been on since dinner. McIntosh said that Misgen had stated he was in the house as late as 11:30 to pick up keys and didn’t notice anything wrong.
Ellendale fire crews responded to the second fire at 3:49 a.m., about 45 minutes after the Misgens reported leaving for the night.
McIntosh told the jury that Misgen was the only person who was confirmed to be alone in the house before each fire. Experts testified that the two fires started in different places, and the second had been much more intense.
That led investigators to believe that an accelerant was used to start the second fire. Misgen’s wife, Sara Degen-Misgen, was on the record purchasing bottles of Heet fuel additive to start a truck that night. The additive contains isopropyl alcohol, which experts said burns quickly and leaves no trace.
All of the investigators — from the state Fire Marshal’s office, insurance companies and an independent expert — reached the conclusion of arson.
McIntosh also laid out evidence of motive.
“The Misgens were experiencing serious financial pressure,” he said.
The family had $428,000 in debt between personal affairs, their home and two businesses. Their gas service had been shut off in 2009, but McIntosh said that they kept up on their insurance policy payments.
Following the fire, 96 percent of the $395,514 insurance claim was for the structure alone, which had long been under renovation, McIntosh said.
In his closing argument, defense attorney Richard Swanson said that the state had not produced enough evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. He picked at parts of the prosecutor’s case.
“This trial has been about a puzzle,” Swanson said, adding that all the pieces were not there.
He pointed out first that the court dismissed Sara Degen-Misgen’s charges of aiding and abetting arson and insurance fraud. He did not add that this was due to a plea bargain, in which Degen-Misgen pleaded guilty to a felony charge of issuing dishonest checks.
Swanson told the jury that investigators may have testified that an accelerant was likely used, but no evidence was found on the scene.
He picked up on certain details of the case, such as the Misgens’ being behind on gas payments but current on their insurance payments. Swanson said that it isn’t uncommon for people to be in those situations.
He questioned the line of sight for a neighbor who testified to seeing Misgen’s car at the house shortly before crews responded to the second fire.
To close, Swanson suggested that a guilty verdict means that, with Christmas just three weeks away from when the fires started, Misgen intentionally took Christmas away from his children.
After about two hours of deliberation, the jury returned a unanimous guilty verdict for both counts. District Court Judge Joseph Bueltel ordered a pre-sentencing investigation leading up to a sentencing hearing on Jan. 5.
Bueltel released Misgen for the interim, citing that the defendant had been cooperative so far and has not indicated that he would flee.
Misgen and his attorney declined to comment after the verdict.
McIntosh said that the jury was able to process everything from the trial — 98 exhibits and 22 witnesses over seven days — to reach its decision. He was putting together the pieces for the jurors.
“The verdicts, they are consistent with how we saw the evidence,” McIntosh said. “It was a long investigation — a lot of information collected and a lot of detail. And that was our point throughout the case.”