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Evidence of Wauseon arson in '07 fire is indirect

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A verdict in arson charges against Charles Bryan is expected Wednesday.

The Blade/Andy Morrison
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WAUSEON - The investigator who determined the 2007 fire at Doc Holliday's restaurant was an act of arson conceded Friday that he had no direct or scientific evidence to support that finding, but Assistant Fulton County Prosecutor Paul Kennedy told the court the circumstantial evidence linking restaurant owner Charles Bryan to the fire was strong.

During his closing arguments in Fulton County Common Pleas Court, Mr. Kennedy outlined for visiting Judge Charles Wittenberg why he believed Mr. Bryan set the fire at his restaurant April 14, 2007, as well as a smaller blaze there in January, 2007, saying Mr. Bryan was in a financial bind and his business was failing.

"Among the statements he made, he said, 'I told, [business partner] Dirk Maat, I think we'll have enough to pay everyone off,'" Mr. Kennedy said, referring to a statement Mr. Bryan made during a taped interview after the fire with Frank Reitmeier, an investigator with the state Fire Marshal's Office. "That was his goal in committing this offense."

The prosecutor contended insurance payments after the fire erased Mr. Bryan's business debts and gave him the opportunity to start fresh.

"Ultimately, these fires left him free and clear to be in a position to open a restaurant owned solely by himself without Dirk Maat," Mr. Kennedy said.

Mr. Bryan, 40, of Wauseon is charged with three counts of aggravated arson, nine counts of arson, and two counts of insurance fraud stemming from two fires.

Defense attorney Jerry Phillips told the court the prosecution was attempting to "shoehorn" the facts to shore up its theory. The January fire at the restaurant was ruled accidental by the Wauseon Fire Department, he said, and only called arson by Mr. Reitmeier after the April fire.

"They put the facts in a certain way that only fits with the proposition that A, those fires were arson, and B, Mr. Bryan caused the fires," Mr. Phillips said.

"I submit to the court that this is not a grand jury proceeding. It is not a probable cause hearing. It is a trial on the merits of arson, aggravated arson, and insurance fraud. The state and its witnesses cannot suppose, cannot use conjecture, cannot guess, and cannot tell the court how to eliminate individuals that they feel we are blaming."

During the final day of testimony yesterday in the week-long trial, Mr. Phillips spent more than an hour cross-examining Mr. Reitmeier about his investigation, his background, and training.

Mr. Reitmeier said the Doc Holliday fire, which caused heavy damage to the restaurant and several adjacent businesses, may have been the largest fire he had investigated since joining the state Fire Marshal's Office eight months earlier.

He said he found no evidence of ignitable liquids at the scene, that he could not say what was used to start the fire, that there was no evidence of a time-delay device that would have allowed the arsonist to set the fire and leave before the blaze took off, and that he had no direct or scientific evidence implicating Mr. Bryan as the arsonist.

Mr. Bryan, by his own admission, was the last person to leave the restaurant that night and had been home less than two hours when the fire was discovered by a passing police officer.

Mr. Kennedy reminded the court that circumstantial evidence can be given the same weight as direct evidence and "the circumstances of this case should convince you beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of all these charges."

An expert in fire investigation called by the defense testified that after examining the reports and photographs from the two fires, he could not determine a cause but did not believe either was intentionally set.

Ryan Cox, a fire investigator for Kodiac Fire & Safety Consulting in Fort Wayne, Ind., also said Mr. Reitmeier's use of process of elimination to determine a cause of the April fire was not a professionally accepted practice.

Mr. Cox said that just because an investigator rules out nine of 10 possible causes, that does not automatically mean the tenth cause is the correct one.

Also taking the stand Friday was Mr. Bryan's wife, Jennifer, who said she found her husband on the bathroom floor crying the night after the fire.

"I just remember him saying to me, 'I built that place. I built that place from an old hardware store,'" Mrs. Bryan said, adding, "All our memories are there. That's where I met him. Our son's first birthday party was there, my bridal shower, my best friend's baby shower, my sister's 16th birthday party - just Charlie's and my whole married life was that restaurant."

Judge Wittenberg said he expected to announce his verdict at 3 p.m. Wednesday.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-724-6129.

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