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Published: Monday, 11/24/2003

Fire ignites mystery, shatters 2 families

BY GEORGE J. TANBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Richard Rickard picks through the rubble of his home in Leipsic in search of personal effects that survived the fire. Richard Rickard picks through the rubble of his home in Leipsic in search of personal effects that survived the fire.
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LEIPSIC, Ohio - On Thursday afternoon, Richard Rickard sifted through the charred rubble of his West Sugar Street home, searching for personal effects that, hopefully, hadn't been burned in a mysterious fire Nov. 15. It was a futile effort.

Earlier, he'd found six photo albums that had been squirreled away, some glassware, and a few pieces of the family silver. But that was it.

At the same time, Mr. Rickard searched for answers that may be equally elusive.

His next-door neighbor and good friend of two decades, Robert Nowary, a 42-year-old widower with four children, died in the blaze that broke out while Mr. Rickard was visiting his son in Walbridge.

When he was discovered by firefighters inside Mr. Rickard's single-story bungalow, Mr. Norway's pockets had been filled with food taken from Mr. Rickard's pantry.

“Nobody knows. And we're never going to know,” said Mr. Rickard's other next-door neighbor, Kelly Dunham.

State Fire Marshal Dennis Cupp ruled that the fire, which also destroyed the Norway home, started in the garage and was either accidentally or intentionally set.

“We know someone started it, but not who. [And] our only witness is dead,” said Putnam County Sheriff James Beutler.

The case took a twist on Tuesday when a tipster reported seeing someone leaving Mr. Rickard's home carrying a TV, Mr. Rickard said. Mr. Rickard then searched his house and found that in addition to the TV, a VCR and audio-cassette recorder were missing.

The cassette recorder was found later in Mr. Norway's bedroom. Food from Mr. Rickard's garage freezer was found in Mr. Norway's refrigerator and in his backyard. Mr. Rickard said Mr. Norway did not have a key to his house.

Sheriff Beutler said it's possible others were involved in the incident. His investigation is continuing.

“We can't substantiate anything else yet,” he said.

Mr. Rickard was so distraught over the new developments, he declined to attend Mr. Norway's funeral Wednesday in this farming community 55 miles southwest of Toledo. “I know if I'd seen him, I'd have lost it after what he did to me,” he said. “He knew better. If he needed food, all he had to do was ask.”

Mr. Rickard, 73, had lived in his Leipsic house for 49 years. For 26 years, he operated a Sunoco gas station in Leipsic before joining Campbell Soup Co. in Napoleon. His wife, Aki, died of cancer in 1991, and his only child, Richard, Jr., is a Walbridge contractor.

Mr. Norway and his wife, Shirley, became the Rickards' neighbors in the early '80s. Mr. Norway worked at Pandora Manufacturing, and Mrs. Norway was employed by Burger King. Their four children - three boys and a girl - attended Leipsic schools.

Mr. Norway was well-liked in Leipsic, according to a friend, Felix Sanchez.

“Everybody knew Bobby Norway. He was always a happy guy,” he said.

In 1999, Mrs. Norway died of cancer, and things gradually grew worse for the Norways.

“Shirley kept that family together,” Mrs. Dunham said.

Mr. Norway was charged with drunken driving in 2001 and 2002, and subsequently lost his driver's license and his job. At his death, he was facing a concealed weapons and other charges related to his arrest last month, according to county court records.

Recently, Mr. Norway's car had been repossessed, Mr. Rickard said, and his house had been sold at a sheriff's sale. He had 30 days to move, Sheriff Beutler said.

Still, Mr. Rickard remained friendly with Mr. Norway, who was a gifted handyman and enjoyed bartering at flea markets. On Nov. 14, the day before the fire, Mr. Norway worked on Mr. Rickard's snowblower, which was in need of repair, Mr. Rickard said.

The following morning, Mr. Rickard left for Walbridge to visit his son, as he did every Saturday morning. When he returned, at 8:30 p.m., his house was in flames.

“The firemen were happy to see me,” he said. “They were hunting for my body.”

His house was gone, but his dog, Samantha, was safe: She had escaped unharmed to the backyard.

Mr. Norway, found inside the front doorway, was pronounced dead in St. Rita's Ambulatory Care Center in Ottawa. He died of smoke inhalation, Putnam County Coroner Oliver Lugibihl ruled. A toxicology report is pending.

As a result of the fire, two families' lives have been permanently altered.

Mr. Norway's youngest children, Eric, 13, and Allan, 11, are moving to Columbus Grove, Ohio, where they will live with their older brother, Jason, 24, whom Mrs. Dunham describes as “a heck of a kid.” A sister, Jessica, 21, lives in Ottawa. The Norways have declined to comment since the fire.

On Friday, classmates of Eric and Allan held a farewell party for them at Leipsic High School, where they were given about $1,100 raised by Eric's 7th-grade classmates.

“The students took the initiative all by themselves,” said Eric's teacher, Cinda Strock.

Yesterday, Mrs. Dunham directed the students in a door-to-door food collection drive for the Norways.

As for Mr. Rickard, he said his house, which wasn't insured, was worth $65,000. He spent Thursday morning shopping for clothes with the $250 given to him by the American Red Cross office in Ottawa. Firefighters in Walbridge - his son is a member of the volunteer force there - contributed $200 and a bed.

Mr. Rickard has moved into his son's house.

“I'd planned on staying here my whole life,” he said as he prepared to leave his Leipsic home. “Since this happened, I want to get out of here, you know what I mean? I have no family here, no nothing.”

Mr. Sanchez, who'd stopped to ask about buying the motor in Mr. Rickard's burned-up van, told Mr. Rickard it was a shame what had happened to Bobby Norway after his wife died. Mr. Rickard stubbed out another cigarette and pursed his lips.

“My wife died. That's no excuse,” he said.



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