NAPOLEON - A rickety barn next to a vacant, broken-down house appeared to be a beacon for vandals. But for a 61-year-old Henry County woman, the drafty barn was home.
Arsonists set fire Saturday morning to the barn that Julia Ann Riefers had fashioned into a home on her family farm in Napoleon Township. The well-known local character was killed, becoming the first fatality in what fire officials say is a rash of deliberately set fires throughout Henry County.
Ms. Riefers died from smoke inhalation in the aged barn on Road T that had served as her home for the past few decades. Fire officials have no leads.
“We don't believe this was a malicious act, that somebody was trying to kill somebody,” Napoleon Fire Chief Lynn Hancock said. “We believe that they thought they were lighting an old, vacant barn.”
The structure was fully engulfed and beginning to collapse when emergency crews arrived about 2:30 a.m. Firefighters worked diligently to put the fire out, knowing that Ms. Riefers was likely inside. The structure was a total loss, Chief Hancock said.
Within the past few years Napoleon firefighters have battled several arson fires that caused more than $1 million of property damage, Chief Hancock said. Countywide, the state fire marshal has looked into seven arson fires this year and five in 2000.
Arson fires have been a problem in the neighboring counties of Defiance, Fulton, and Williams. In Fulton County the Ohio Fire Marshal has been asked to investigate two arson fires this year and eight last year
Henry County Sheriff John Nye would not speculate whether the arsons were related but said investigators are looking into the possibility. Nobody was hurt in the other fires.
Ms. Riefers, a 1957 graduate of Ridgeville Corners High School, generally kept to herself, friends say. Described by some as eccentric, Ms. Riefers lived alone in the barn on the nearly 20-acre farm where she grew up. Inside, she created a home within an eight-by-eight storage shed set up within the wooden barn.
In her space, Ms. Riefers set up a twin bed, a small television set, and a ceramic heater for colder nights, Chief Hancock said. She would travel down the road to her cousin's house on bitter winter nights to keep warm.
Friends said she used to live in the family's farmhouse but said years of neglect had rendered the house unlivable.
Ms. Riefers lived in the barn for some time with her older brother, Laverne Riefers. For the last year and a half, since her older brother died of a stroke, she has lived alone. Most area locals knew of her and her unusual choice of home, officials said.
Ms. Riefers is survived by several cousins. Few live in the area.
It was Ms. Riefer's intense resistance to change that kept her living in the battered barn, said Patrick Jackson, owner of Buckeye Cleaners and Ms. Riefers' boss. No matter how many times he tried to coax her into another home, Ms. Riefers was content and happy where she was, he said.
“She was a very self-sufficient person that really kept to herself. She was very quiet and didn't like people nosing around her,” said Mr. Jackson, who employed Ms. Riefers for the last few years. “Once you got to know her, she was one of the sweetest ladies you'd ever meet.
“It's just heartsickening,” he added.
Sheriff Nye said that Ms. Riefers had filed complaints with his department claiming that people interested in her property had harassed her. But all allegations were investigated and determined not to have merit, the sheriff said.
“But we're now looking into everything and anything,” Sheriff Nye said yesterday. “We're not ruling anything out.”
Investigators believe Ms. Riefers was sleeping when the blaze was intentionally lit on the outside of the barn.
Investigators are looking into another barn fire that occurred about an hour earlier on County Rd. 7 in the county's Marion Township. Sheriff Nye said investigators are trying to determine whether the two fires are connected.
Chief Hancock said the department has renewed vigor in trying to determine who is responsible for the series of fires in the county. The department enlisted the public's help last year when 14 vehicles and homes were torched within a five-month period, he said.
Now investigators are looking for help again.
“We just have very little information and no leads in this particular fire,” Chief Hancock said.
“We've been stonewalled for the past year and a half. We went public with arson fires. We felt that it was a threat to people and that it was just a matter of time before somebody did get hurt,” he added. “We were afraid this would happen, and now that it has, it makes us all sick.”