By Lynda Jensen
VICTOR TOWNSHIP, MN A relatively bizarre turn of events culminated in arson charges against a Wisconsin man, related to a fire at the home and garage of a rural Howard Lake couple July 28.
Ryan Brace, 28, of Superior, WI, has been charged with first degree arson for pouring gas on the front porch and garage of the Bob and Lucille Schermann house, south of Howard Lake, Tuesday. The Schermanns’ home had been randomly selected after he told his cab driver to stop there.
Brace told authorities that he committed the arson “to defend myself,” according to the complaint filed in Wright County District Court.
The Schermanns were able to call for help and escape the fire, despite the fact that Bob uses a wheelchair. The fire was quickly put out by the Winsted Fire Department.
How it started
The story actually began a few days before in Howard Lake, according to Winsted Police Chief Mike Henrich.
“The Howard Lake Police dealt with this guy, who felt that someone was trying to kill him,” Henrich said.
Howard Lake Police Chief Tracy Vetruba confirmed that a Howard Lake officer on duty that night came into contact with Brace, who asked to be taken to a motel. “The closest motel was Winsted,” Vetruba said.
It should be noted that both Howard Lake and Winsted officers who came into contact with Brace described him as a fairly clean-cut, average individual. “He had money,” Henrich added, explaining that it wasn’t like Brace was a vagrant.
The Winsted officer did not feel that Brace was impaired by drugs or alcohol, Henrich noted.
Brace was brought to the Winsted Motel, where he reported that people were trying to break into his hotel room.
A report came in July 28 that a suspicious person (Brace) was looking for a ride to a clinic. The McLeod County Sheriff’s Office responded to the Brace call, because the Winsted Police were tied up with reports of a runaway and a separate suspicious person. “We were preoccupied with someone else in Hutch,” Henrich recalled.
Later, a 911 call came in from Keg’s Bar, stating that Brace felt he was being chased by others, Henrich said. He asked to have a taxi arranged, heading for St. Cloud.
During this experience, officers assured Brace that no one was trying to kill him, Henrich said.
“Officers felt this guy was paranoid,” Henrich said. However, Brace did not appear to be a danger to anyone else or himself; and did not raise the warning bells of the other authorities who came into contact with him that night.
The decision to mentally commit someone is a hard one to make, Henrich said. Behavior that is considered unusual or “not normal,” may not be enough to have someone committed.
From there, the evening took a different turn, as Brace stopped the taxi on Wright County Road 6 at 10:25 p.m., telling authorities later that he felt the “taxi driver threatened him, so he got out,” according to court documents.
Wright County Deputy John Stine responded to a report of a suspicious man (Brace). “While enroute, Deputy Stine was advised by dispatch that the man had splashed gas on the house and started it on fire,” according to the criminal complaint.
Upon arrival, the fire had been put out by the Winsted Fire Department, and Howard Lake Officer Darek Szczepanik was already on the scene.
The house had been set on fire in two places, near the porch door at the front of the house and at the corner of the garage, Stine reported. He observed melted and burned siding at both fire locations.
Lucille Schermann told authorities that she woke up to the sound of someone pounding at the door, and wasn’t about to answer the door at that late hour. Her husband, Bob, called 911. A short time later, she heard the doorbell ringing and went into the kitchen, and saw a large man wearing a blue shirt pouring gas near the front door, Lucille reported. The next thing she saw was flames, she told police.
When asked by Stine why he started the fires, Brace told authorities “to defend myself,” according to the complaint.
At the scene, two fuel containers near the garage and a gas pump laying on the ground were observed, according to the complaint. It was further observed that a pile of burned items was located near the doorway of the home, and numerous other fuel containers and propane containers were near the garage.
Brace is in the Wright County Jail, charged with first degree arson.