Stephen Posniak was charged Oct. 20, 2008, with one count of setting timber afire, one count of leaving a fire unattended and one count of giving false information to a Federal officer. He's accused of starting Minnesota's largest forest fire in years, the Ham Lake fire, which burned more than 75,000 acres and nearly 140 structures in May 2007. Posniak's case was scheduled in federal court Jan. 12.
But yesterday he took his own life in the back yard of his Washington D.C. home, reportedly by a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The charges weighed heavily on Posniak, according to his defense attorney, Mark Larsen, with the Minneapolis law firm Lindquist and Vennum.
"He was a very incisively intelligent man, who loved coming to Minnesota, approximately once a year, to visit the BWCA, which gave him experiences that he profoundly treasured," Larsen said. "[That] made the nature of the charge in the case just all the more ironic for him."
Prosecutors were expected to argue that Posniak started the fire with a trash fire that got out of hand. But Larsen said the statute implies arson, and conviction could have put Posniak in federal prison for five years or more.
"He wasn't literally charged with arson, but the nature of the verbiage of the offense, to willfully undertake an action, carried with it a degree of intent to cause harm," Larsen said. "Really a very sobering charge for this 64-year-old retired former federal employee."
Larsen said the charges were too much.
"It was excessive, and in my line of work, what we call that is over-charging," Larsen said. "That's where the prosecutor elects a charge that might nominally fit someone's view of the facts, but that brings about the specter of bad conduct that far exceeds what the evidence would support."
The U.S. Attorney's office declined an interview but, in a statement, said the appropriate outcome would have been determined by a jury and judge and that the defense counsel's suggestion that the government should be blamed for this unfortunate outcome is unwarranted.
In Northern Minnesota, where forest fires are part of the natural cycle, reaction wasn't strongly vindictive when Posniak was charged last October. Bob Baker, with Gunflint Pines resort, said then the charges could at least bring closure.
"But it still doesn't change anything that happened, you know, to the landscape," Baker said. "And that will never be the same, not from what I remember it."
Posniak lived most of his life in the Washington D.C. area, but earned his masters degree at the University of Minnesota. John Posniak, of Alexandria, Virginia, said his brother loved to walk and he loved to canoe. He developed a long love affair with Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
"As far as I can remember, you know, for 25 years, it seemed like every year he would go up there, in the early spring, before the hoards came out and while the fauna were coming out for the winter," Posniak said of his brother. "On a couple of occasions he took friends and was always trying to get other people to go. He loved Minnesota. Really, I think that was the highpoint of his year."
Those trips became the fodder for family memories.
"My favorite story, it was one of his first times he came there and he heard somebody clearing his throat," Posniak said. "And he turned around and it was a moose. That story is part of our family lore."
John Posniak wouldn't talk about the charges against his brother. Instead, he remembers his brother for what he loved.
I think being outdoors, and being with his family was when he was the happiest," he said.
Defense Attorney Mark Larsen said Posniak's death should close the case. Posniak is survived by his wife and by one daughter, both in the Washington D.C. area.