Questions Burn On In The Aftermathof Westminster Fires

10 News Story

January 05, 1992|By Maria Archangelo | Maria Archangelo,Staff writer

Two roaring blazes lighted up the sky above downtown Westminster in 1991 -- one ending in death and a murder trial, the other gutting twowell-known city businesses.

A four-alarm fire that ripped throughan apartment building at 88 W. Main St. April 24 killed 49-year-old Carvin "Big Joe" Hanna and left 12 people homeless.

While the blaze was contained after two hours, it sparked a investigation county fire and police officials called one of the "most unusual" in Carroll history.

Hours after the fire broke out, a homeless man who often slept on the building's couch was charged with setting the blaze and with Hanna's murder.

Charles "Chicken Charlie" Ogline was held at the Carroll County Detention Center on the charges until August.

The Carroll State's Attorney's Office decided to dropthe charges against Ogline after it built a case against John M. Woodward, a resident of the apartment building.

Woodward came to the attention of Deputy State Fire Marshal Frank Rauschenberg and Westminster Police Detective Lt. Dean Brewer when his former roommate told police he believed Woodward set the fire.

Woodward's statements to police left baffled investigators with the confessions from two men to the same crime.

Woodward's eight-day trial before a county jury was dominated by the verbal sparring of psychiatrists and psychologists, who debated Woodward's mental status at the time he confessed to setting the blaze.

Defense attorney J. Barry Hughes of Westminstermaintained his client was borderline mentally retarded and coerced into confessing, and told the jury the prosecution charged the wrong man.

After several hours of deliberations, the jury acquitted Woodward of all of the charges.

Woodward's acquittal left lingering questions about the state's strategy in charging two men with the same crime.

Questions also followed the raging fire that destroyed two businesses at 16 W. Main Street Nov. 17.

According to investigatorswith the State Fire Marshal's Office, the seven-alarm blaze began ina workshop at Stem's Used Furniture and Appliances, and then spread to Heagy's Sport Shop in the same building.

The fire marshal citedowner William Stem in July for several violations, including refinishing furniture in a room that was not fireproof, lacked ventilation and had improper storage facilities.

The Fire Marshal's Office, which drew some criticism for never returning to inspect the site beforethe fire broke out, said its policy did not require a return visit after the citations were made.

Stem maintained he made the changes required by the fire marshal to bring the shop up to code.

The State's Attorney's Office has not filed criminal charges against Stem.

The fire also left questions about the city's ability to provide enough water to fight a large blaze because water had to be brought in from other parts of the city.

City officials are investigating their water supply system to see if any changes should be made.

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