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Arson suspect bound over

November 18, 2009
By GARRETT NEESE Houghton Daily Mining Gazette

HOUGHTON - The man accused of setting a July fire that killed four people in downtown Hancock said the apartment building would burn down within three days on the night of the fire, witnesses said in 97th District Court Monday.

Ronald Kemppainen, 47, was in court Monday for his preliminary hearing. At the end, Judge Mark Wisti ruled there was probable cause to move the case along to Houghton County Circuit Court.

Kemppainen is charged with four counts of homicide, punishable by up to life in prison, and one count of arson, a 20-year felony.

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The fire, which started early on the morning of July 25 at 116 Quincy St., resulted in the deaths of John Hoganson, Anita White, Troy Woods and Robert MacDonald.

Police say Kemppainen started the fire in the apartment building's laundry room, near the apartment of Danielle Walker.

Three people in Walker's apartaent described a confrontation between Kemppainen and witness Jason Gain.

Gain said he had heard banging on the walls, he went in to the hallway to find Kemppainen at the top of the stairs. He said Kemppainen was belligerent, and was asking for a joint.

"He said, 'This building will burn down in three days,'" he said.

When Gain asked him why, he said, Kemppainen replied, "Fire."

Gain said he then told Kemppainen to go back to his apartment, which he did after five to 10 minutes.

Chad Monticello, who was also in the apartment, recalled going to the door to see Gain and Kemppainen arguing. He placed the duration of the argument at three minutes and 15 seconds, but also recalled Kemppainen's threat "about how he hated the place and was going to burn it down in three days."

Later that night, Gain went to the laundry room to smoke, accompanied by his girlfriend at the time, Heather Pitawanakwat. After 10 minutes, she said, Kemppainen came in and joined them on the laundry room couch.

"As soon as he walks in, he sits down, and I get up and leave," Pitawanakwat said.

Gain said he also left, putting out his cigarette in his beer bottle.

Gain, who stayed up throughout the night, said he noticed beeping noises in the hallway about 20 minutes later.

"I got out, and the flames were shooting out of the laundry room," he said.

Gain then woke up the people in the apartment. He and Monticello then went to other apartments trying to wake people up.

"Jason slapped me in the stomach, saying 'There's a fire in the building, there's a fire in the building,'" Monticello said.

After the fire, the people from the apartment building stood on Quincy Street.

"I asked him why the hell he did it, and what his problem was," Gain said. "He just kept saying he didn't do it."

Hancock police arrested Kemppainen on the morning of the fire for a parole violation. He spent 45 days in the county jail before he had to be released.

In late October, Michigan State Police Fire Marshal Jeff Hubbard in Marquette concluded the blaze was deliberately set. Kemppainen was arrested by the Calumet Police Department at his home in Calumet Oct. 30.

Testifying Monday, Hubbard said the fire damage was greatest in the laundry room area, leading him to pinpoint that as the origin of the fire.

He ruled out mechanical or electrical causes of the fire. Although several people had been smoking in the laundry room, Hubbard said that was unlikely to be the cause.

"There were people in the area of origin a short time before the fire was discovered," he said. "A cigarette fire is generally a slow-going, smoky fire. If that was happening, they would have known it."

Hubbard took three samples of wood from near the fire's origin. A sample from the bottom of the stairwell was discovered to have petroleum distillate, which he said could be charcoal lighter or paint thinner.

Hubbard said the fire would need to have been started with an open flame.

While nobody had seen Kemppainen start the fire, Hubbard said his status as the last person seen in the room, coupled with the presence of an accelerant near the stairwell, made him the likely culprit.

Kemppainen's attorney, David Gemignani, pointed to inconsistencies in the witnesses' testimonies, such as the length, time and positioning of people in the hallway confrontation, as well as the lack of physical evidence tying Kemppainen to the fire.

"Without any solid basis, you can't say there's probable cause," he said.

Houghton County Prosecutor Michael Makinen said he was happy with the bindover, while Gemignani said he was satisfied with the case he had made.

"We made the points we intended to make," Gemignani said. "After this, we're preparing for trial."

Kemppainen's arraignment in Houghton County Circuit Court was set for Nov. 23.

Garrett Neese can be reached at



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