D.C. Man, 64, Charged in Fire Apparently Kills Himself

By Clarence Williams and Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A 64-year-old Northwest Washington man who was charged with causing the largest wildfire in Minnesota in 90 years apparently shot and killed himself yesterday in his back yard.

Stephen G. Posniak, an outdoorsman, retired federal employee and former advisory neighborhood commissioner, died at his home on Windom Place, according to police sources and his lawyer.

The apparent suicide came the day after a federal magistrate judge in Minneapolis denied motions challenging key aspects of the charges filed in the 2007 Ham Lake fire, which burned for days, destroying more than 75,000 acres.

According to the Justice Department, Posniak was charged Oct. 20 in Minneapolis with setting timber afire, leaving a fire unattended and unextinguished, and giving false information to United States Forest Service officers. A trial was to begin next month.

In connection with the charge of willfully setting the fire May 5, the Justice Department said Posniak burned paper items and other trash that ignited the blaze in Superior National Forest. Putting out the fire cost about $11 million, the government said.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Minneapolis declined to comment.

Posniak pleaded not guilty at arraignment, and his attorney, Mark Larsen, called the government's case "an exercise in overcharging." He said there was no evidence "at all" that Posniak intentionally set the fire. He said Posniak would have contested the charges vigorously in court.

Larsen expressed sorrow at the death of "a gentle, kind, caring individual." He said Posniak had loved the area where the fire took place, visited it almost every year for two decades and "cherished his time here."

Someone who answered the phone last night at the Posniak home said the family would have no comment.

A posting about Posniak placed before his death on the "Boundary Waters Blog" said: "My guess is he has been punishing himself since that awful day when the fire started and he's been feeling guilty ever since. Will proving he's guilty or punishing him make a difference?"

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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