Frat fire inquiry slowed by lawyers Nov. 17 blaze killed Wesleyan student Residents won't talk
By Matthew Hansen, WORLD-HERALD BUREAU LINCOLN --
The six-week-old investigation into a fatal fraternity house fire has slowed in part because many Phi Kappa Tau members have hired lawyers and are refusing to speak to police, authorities said.
Ryan Stewart, 19, a Nebraska Wesleyan University sophomore, died in the blaze, which ignited inside his second-story room at the Phi Kappa Tau house Nov. 17.
Now, more than 40 days after Stewart's death, investigators have yet to determine -- and say they may never determine -- the cause of the fire that killed him. "This investigation is difficult (because) there was considerable damage, there were quite a few people in the structure, and they've all obtained attorneys," said Bill Moody, Lincoln's chief fire inspector. "That slows the process."
Fire inspectors conducted the first round of interviews with fraternity members before handing the case to Lincoln police, which typically heads fire investigations when criminal activity is suspected, Moody said.
Police seized dozens of fireworks at the beginning of the investigation, according to a search warrant. They also confiscated cigars, burnt cigar butts and a small amount of marijuana from the fraternity house.
Investigators made it their goal to interview each of the fraternity's 39 members before the students left for holiday break.This month, though, police have had difficulty contacting and meeting with fraternity members who have hired attorneys, Police Chief Tom Casady said.
"It's not unusual at all that (fraternity members) are being cautious and seeking legal advice," Casady said.
Attempts by a reporter to reach Phi Kappa Tau fraternity members were unsuccessful Thursday.
Neither Casady nor Moody could say when the investigation would end, but Rick Campos, a Lincoln fire inspector, said determining the cause of a fire sometimes takes six months or more. Inspectors often have to wait for items they've sent to the state crime lab to be analyzed and returned, a slow process because of a backlog at the lab, Campos said.
Police and fire investigators sent several items from the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity house to out-of-state labs for analysis, which could make the investigation even longer, he said.
The police chief and chief fire inspector said there's no guarantee that investigators will determine the fire's cause.
"Occasionally you see a fire as undetermined (cause)," Moody said.
"Do investigators have opinions? Usually. If it's not provable in a court of law, we're unable to make the call.
"Wesleyan officials have said the fraternity will face a university investigation no matter the result of the police investigation, noting that possession of fireworks and marijuana are both violations of the student code of conduct.
Dave Otto, president of the fraternity house's corporation board, has said Phi Kappa Tau plans to rebuild the house using insurance money and alumni donations, suggesting that fraternity leaders don't think Wesleyan will kick Phi Kappa Tau off campus.
Casady plans to speak with parents of Phi Kappa Tau fraternity members no matter the outcome of the investigation.
He said he wants a face-to-face meeting so he can give them the "big picture" of the investigation and the fraternity's activities on the night preceding the fire."They should have the opportunity to hear from us, what we've done, what we've found out," Casady said.
Installation of sprinkler systems at Wesleyan buildings has begun.Installation began at Centennial Hall, the first of 13 buildings set to have the systems installed. The installation is expected to be finished before students return to campus Jan. 22.