State closes Clintonville fire investigation
Department of Justice says cause ‘undetermined’
By Bert Lehman
An investigation by the Wisconsin Department of Justice has determined that the cause of the fire that damaged the building located at the Clintonville municipal outdoor swimming pools is “undertermined.”
The Clintonville Tribune-Gazette obtained a copy of the fire investigation report via an open records request with the state DOJ.
The report indicated that the fire damage was originally discovered on Monday, Dec. 21, 2015, by Bret Klotzbuecher, city of Clintonville Park and Recreation foreman, who was in the area emptying garbage cans, when he noticed black charring along the west edge of the double tee spancrete roof panels.
After contacting the Clintonville Police Department and Clintonville Fire Departments, it was discovered that a previously locked men’s locker room door was open and a cash register had been moved from the office area to the floor in the men’s locker room.
At 11 a.m. that same day Clintonville Assistant Fire Chief Todd Prellwitz contacted Special Agent Brian Liethen of the Division of Criminal Investigation to request assistance from the State Fire Marshal’s Office. Liethen and other investigators arrived at the scene that same day. According to the fire investigation report, “the fire originated in the west half of the central office/storage room area. The cause of the fire was classified as ‘undetermined.’”
Liethen recommended a case be opened to allow for documentation of the fire scene.
In an interview with investigators, Park and Recreation Director Justin Mc Auly stated the pool closed for the season in late August. He also stated Park and Recreation staff used the pool building to store city park benches. Mid October was the last time a city employee would have been in the building, Mc Auly said.
Klotzbuecher told investigators that when he noticed the black charring, he unlocked the doors on the west side of the building. When he opened the doors he saw the central portion of the building had sustained heavy fire damage, but the fire was out and there were no signs of smoke, heat or flames.
Klotzbuecher said he also found an east personnel door open from the men’s locker room. He added that the door must have been opened from the inside since the door had been secured with an interior sliding bolt lock. He also noticed that an aluminum lifeguard stairs/tower had been pulled a few feet away from the exterior wall of the building.
The fire investigation report indicated the police department canvassed the neighborhood in an effort to find witnesses to the events.
An adult female, who lives across the street, informed officers that on Dec. 17, at approximately 10:30 p.m. she heard a loud boom while she was outside. She said the boom sounded “like a bomb exploding.” She called the police at that time and officers responded to the general area but didn’t find anything. The fire investigation report indicated that it wasn’t known if officers physically checked the pool building.
Officers also spoke to an adult male who lives about a block away from the pool building. He stated that on Dec. 19 he smelled an unusual odor, what he thought was burning plastic. He did not call the police at the time.
During the investigation, investigators found that an “average-sized person” could climb the lifeguard stairs/tower to reach the top of the cinderblock wall.
“Based upon the gap on the underside of the double tee spancrete roof panels, it would be theoretically possible for a person(s) to gain entry to the structure by climbing over the cinderblock wall,” the report stated.
Clintonville Police Sergeant Andrew Hopfensperger told investigators that in his 30 years of working for the Clintonville Police Department “it was not uncommon to find that kids had scaled the cinderblock wall to gain access to the structure.”
Investigators didn’t find evidence of any failure and/or fire causation throughout the building. A brown cardboard matchbook was found on top of trash in a garbage can in the men’s locker room.
The office and a storage room sustained the majority of the fire damage. The remains of an oxygen cylinder was found and investigators questioned if that was the explosion the female witness said she heard.
Nearly all combustible items in the storage room had been consumed by fire, the report indicated.
It also indicated that the structure was not equipped with a fire suppression or alarm system, smoke detectors or a security system.
Investigators concluded that ventilation was not an issue throughout the duration of the fire.
Finding the cause of the fire was complicated because the fire self-extinguished after uncontrolled free burning.
“Investigators found the near complete destruction of combustible materials in the office area and storage room did not provide sufficient evidence to more narrowly identify an area of fire origin(s),” the report indicated.
Investigators also couldn’t determine if the cash register found in the men’s locker room was related to the fire.
“Additionally, investigators were unable to assess whether the matchbook had any relevance, although given its position on top of the trash and in a structure where matches clearly would not typically be used, its mere presence suggested suspicious circumstances,” the report indicated.
With no further leads to follow, Liethen recommended the case be closed, pending additional investigative leads.