USA — For 30 years, Stephen Posniak sought out the solitude of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. He trekked there nearly every spring to camp, paddle and enjoy the peace and quiet.
It was a place Posniak loved, his attorney said, and he was devastated when authorities accused him of starting a May 2007 wildfire that burned nearly 120 square miles of pristine forest in Minnesota and Canada.
Posniak died Tuesday after shooting himself in his Washington, D.C., home, attorney Mark Larsen said.
“I can’t help but draw a nexus between the two events the charge on one hand and the suicide on the other,” Larsen said Wednesday. “There definitely was a connection there.”
The U.S. attorney’s office maintained that Posniak was charged properly.
Yet even some people who lost property or business to the fire said the charges were unfair, and that Posniak wasn’t entirely to blame. Others said Posniak’s actions weren’t malicious, calling the blaze an accident.
“I think it’s terrible. I think it’s awful,” Anna Hamilton, a co-owner of the Trail Center, said of Posniak’s death. “I think somebody should’ve reached out to him. There should’ve been a little bit more done for that man.”
Barbara Young, co-owner of Poplar Creek Guesthouse B&B, said: “I really am sad for this man and his family. Our trees will grow back he won’t be back.”
The fire burned 118 square miles and destroyed nearly 150 buildings worth more than $10 million. Authorities say $11 million was spent to put out the blaze, which was rated the most destructive in Minnesota since 1918. Nobody was killed or seriously injured.
Posniak, a former information technology specialist for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was indicted in October on a felony count of setting timber afire. The indictment says he willfully and without authority started the fire by burning paper trash and other items that ignited the blaze. He also was charged with two misdemeanors: leaving fire unattended and unextinguished, and giving false information to a forest officer.
He pleaded not guilty. The 64-year-old faced up to five years in prison if convicted of the felony charge.
Larsen said he intended to introduce evidence at trial showing that the fire was not started by Posniak’s actions. He had asked that prosecutors file a misdemeanor instead of a felony.
“This is something that people in my line of work call overcharging,” Larsen said.
David Anderson, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, said in an e-mailed statement that the charges arose out of Posniak’s “admitted conduct in building an illegal trash fire.”
“We feel for Mr. Posniak’s family, but his defense counsel’s suggestion that the United States is to blame for this unfortunate outcome is simply unwarranted,” Anderson said.
Hamilton said many people in the area were talking about Posniak’s death. The majority, she said, felt the charges were unjust.
One victim is Ardis David, who lived in a house on Sea Gull Lake for 32 years. Everything she owned was destroyed in the fire, including her great-grandfather’s Bible from Norway.
“I feel bad, and I’ll never get over it. I’ll never forget everything I left in the house,” said David, 82.
But as her family works to replant trees and rebuild on her blackened property, she said she does not judge Posniak.
“I do not sit here and condemn him,” David said. “I just say life gets really hard sometimes.”