In the early morning hours of September 11, 2006, a fire erupted in J.J.’s Pub, a bar in Harrisville, Wisconsin. The owner, 36-year-old Joseph Awe, was at home more than 30 miles away in Friendship, Wisconsin, and was awakened at 4 a.m. when a man who lived next to the pub phoned him to tell him about the fire.
The bar and the unoccupied apartment above it were gutted. The following day, police reports said firefighters suspected the fire was not an accident and listed Awe as the prime suspect, even though they didn’t know the cause of the fire and had only just begun trying to investigate its cause.
The Mt. Morris Mutual Insurance Company, which stood to pay a claim for at least $200,000 if the fire was declared an accident, hired a fire investigator to sift through the wreckage and an accountant to study Awe’s finances.
Awe was charged with arson in April 2007 after a police informant, Justin Kohel, told the Marquette County Sheriff’s Department that Awe had mentioned “many times” that he wanted to burn the building down to collect insurance. Kohel said that a poster depicting Awe and fellow soldiers atop a Humvee in Kuwait had been removed from the bar prior to the fire. Before Kohel testified at a preliminary hearing, prosecutors dismissed six traffic cases and two felony drug cases pending against him.
Due to his criminal background, however, the prosecution did not call Kohel as a witness when the case went on trial in December 2007.
The arson experts hired by the insurance company testified that the fire was intentionally set by someone who punched a hole in the back of the bar and set the building ablaze. The experts said they had eliminated all other causes for the blaze, including electrical malfunction. The prosecution did not reveal to the defense that the insurance company had paid the arson experts’ fees.
Awe’s defense attorney summoned a fire specialist who had previously investigated only four fires. The investigator said the cause was electrical.
Awe testified in his own defense and denied having any role in the fire. He said the building had numerous electrical problems and that when circuit breakers switched off due to a short-circuit, they were turned back on with a pool cue to avoid getting a shock.
Awe said the Kuwait poster had not been removed and had been consumed in the blaze. He said it was not valuable—that it came from a beer distributor who replaced it for free. Awe also disputed the state’s evidence that he and his wife were suffering financially, and provided records showing they had more than $3,000 a month in income from his military and Social Security disability payments.
On December 20, 2007, a Marquette County jury convicted Awe. He was sentenced to three years in prison and nine years supervision, but was allowed to remain free while he appealed the conviction. The insurance company then sued Awe in an attempt to recoup the $76,000 cost of their investigation of the fire.
In May 2010, after his last appeal was rejected, Awe surrendered to begin serving his sentence.
A year later, in May 2011, the Wisconsin State Journal published a series of articles questioning the neutrality of the state’s fire experts, because they were paid by the insurance company. The article also discussed opinions of independent experts who doubted the state’s evidence of arson and, like the defense investigator, said the blaze appeared to be electrical in origin.
Awe filed a state petition for a new trial. In March 2013, following a hearing, Marquette County Circuit Court Judge Richard Wright vacated Awe’s conviction and ordered a new trial.
Judge Wright found that the state’s experts had improperly testified that the fire was caused by arson, on the basis that no other cause for the blaze could be established. “Had the jury learned that the State’s experts had used a methodology now disapproved by a mainstream arson investigation association, there is a reasonable probability it would have had reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s guilt,” the judge ruled.
On March 25, 2013, Awe was released from prison, two months before completing his prison term. On April 29, 2013, prosecutors dismissed the case.
Awe filed a lawsuit against the Mt. Morris Mutual Insurance Company seeking damages and accusing the company of “meddling” with the criminal investigation. The lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed amount in July 2014.
– Maurice Possley