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Lake Lillian business owner faces arson charge

WILLMAR – Three weeks after the September 23 fire that destroyed the K & M Liquor Store in Lake Lillian, investigators ruled it had been arson.

This week, authorities charged a suspect.

The owner of the building and business, Mary Sue Whitcomb, 51, of rural Atwater, is charged with felony counts of arson in the second degree and insurance fraud. The charges were filed Monday in District Court in Kandiyohi County. Whitcomb is scheduled to make her first court appearance on the charges August 27.

A criminal complaint alleges that the business had been losing money and that Whitcomb had been unsuccessful in attempts to sell it. The business had been refinanced only two weeks before the fire, but the business’s bank account continued to show a negative balance. Overdraft fees on the account totaled $3,940 at the time of the fire. The asking price for the business had been dropped from $65,000 to $49,900, according to the allegations.

Following the fire, Whitcomb submitted a claim to her insurance company on November 4 for losses and damages totaling $75,304.56.

The fire was reported at 9:23 p.m. September 23 when a Lake Lillian resident drove around town to track down the smell of smoke he noticed in his yard. Smoke was coming out of a broken window in an upstairs apartment above the liquor store.

Responding firefighters forced open the front door of the liquor store and doused the fire, which had originated in a first-floor bathroom.

The complaint states that Whitcomb and two employees who are her daughters told investigators that there had been problems with a fuse for the bathroom light.

Investigating the fire were: Deputy State Fire Marshal John Steinbach; Doug Noah of Whitemore Fire Consultants, hired by Auto-Owners Insurance Company; Daniel Choudek and Mike Lein, an electrical engineer and assistant, respectively with Onsite Engineering & Forensic Services. They found no electrical cause for the fire, according to the complaint.

The fire marshal determined that the fire was not accidental, and had been caused when a match or lighter was used to ignite paper towels and toilet tissues in the bathroom.

The complaint alleges that Whitcomb was the last person in the building before the fire. She had left it about 15 minutes before the resident reported the fire.

A store employee who is not related to Whitcomb told investigators that she had heard Whitcomb and her two daughters talk about closing the store on September 28.

Her daughters denied the store was closing when interviewed by investigators, according to the complaint.

Whitcomb’s husband, Kelly Whitcomb, operates a construction company and installs drain tiles and is not involved in the running of the liquor store, the complaint stated.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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