[cifnmedia] Arsons terrorize small town

  • From: Sean & Kimberly Aaron <cifn@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: CIFN LIST <cifnmedia@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Mon, 23 Feb 2004 11:28:09 -0800 (PST)

Arsons terrorize small town 
Topeka suffers 11 fires declared intentional in less than two years 


TOPEKA - There are only 75 to 100 residents in Topeka, a village in northern 
Mason County, so folks there always notice out-of-town cars.

Never more so than now. Since May 2002, the town has suffered 11 fires labeled 
as arson.

"The other day a Channel 20 crew was in back in an unmarked vehicle, and my 
neighbor called up and wanted to know who it was," said resident Greg Saala, 
whose woodworking shop was the most recent target. "It's a very united little 
community. We've all installed motion lights and are paying a lot more 
attention about what's going on, who's going through."

There are only 30 or 40 homes in the entire village. Nine structures and some 
accompanying outbuildings have been destroyed in the fires.

In the case of the Wagon Wheel, a tavern in an old red barn, the party 
responsible kept returning to the partially burned structures until the barn 
and surrounding outbuildings all were destroyed.

The first fires took place in dilapidated buildings that had been vacant for 
years, but the strikes have become more bold and threatening since then. 

"They started running out of (vacant) buildings," Saala said. The fire on Feb. 
1 took Saala's woodworking shop, one of three buildings near his home. An 
assistant lives in an apartment in one building next to the fire site.

Authorities haven't released much information on the arsons. Residents are left 
to wonder who is burning down their village and what will be targeted next.

"There aren't many garages left," Saala said. "We're afraid it might start on 

Topeka is only five blocks at its widest point, so any fire is close to 

"We're kind of tense," said resident Mike Kolves. "Everybody's on edge. 
Anything suspicious - anything moving, hear a dog bark - and people are trying 
to look and see what's going on."

One of the first fires was set in the old grocery store, which had been closed 
for about 25 years. It was only one-half block from Kolves' home. 

A fire a year ago gutted a vacant two-story rental home next door.

"It was about 30 or 40 feet from my house," Kolves said. "I was afraid it was 
going to get ours."

A garage one-half block east of his home burned, and another one block west was 
also claimed. The Saala fire was only two blocks away.

"I could stand and watch it out my front door," Kolves said. "The Wagon Wheel 
was on the other side of town, about three blocks away and over the hill. I 
couldn't hardly see it."

All the fires occurred at night.

Topeka has no police or fire department, but since the arsons, county patrols 
have stepped up. Ridge Lake Fire Department, four miles away in Goofy Ridge, 
responds to Topeka calls, with help from neighboring units.

"No one sleeps well, especially if they have a garage or shed out back," Saala 

Crime Stoppers is offering a $1,000 reward, and the Topeka Village Board is 
offering an additional $2,000 for information leading to the arrest and 
indictment of the person or persons responsible for the arsons. Crime Stoppers 
tips can be called to (309) 543-2746 or toll free to (877) 877-3679. The Mason 
County sheriff's office is involved in the case, and information also can be 
called to (309) 543-2231, although no reward is attached to that number.

Sean A. Aaron (CIFN*1)
Central Illinois Fire Network

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