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Perham man to face arson charge for March house fire

A Perham man has been formally charged in connection with the March 4 fire that heavily damaged his Perham home.

Jeffrey Berns, 39, of Perham, has been charged with first degree arson in connection with the fire at his home at 258 4th Street Northwest. If convicted, Berns could get up to 20 years in prison or have to pay a $20,000 fine.

According to the criminal complaint, Berns called the Perham Fire Department at about 2:40 p.m. on March 4 and reported that his home was on fire. Almost immediately after arriving on the scene firefighters had suspicions about the blaze.

Smoke was coming out of a door, the roof eaves and the chimney. Firefighters reported they had difficulty moving around inside the building because it was extremely cluttered.

When firefighters tore down some sheet rock to get at where they suspected the fire was raging they found smoldering rags next to an electrical box. The smell of natural gas was also obvious, but when they turned off the gas meters the smell was gone.

The outside of the home received little damage, but the inside, especially the kitchen area, suffered heavy smoke and heat damage.

According to the criminal complaint, Fire Chief Mark Schmidt spotted some other things that he felt were suspicious about Berns. According to the chief, Berns had shown up at other previous fire calls in the area. At one fire scene, Schmidt said Berns climbed into a truck and sat inside in vehicle's cab with only his underwear on.

The chief also reported that in 2008, Berns had reported that his garage was on fire. The cause of that blaze was never determined.

Because of his suspicions about Berns and the other incidents occurrences surrounding he decided to report the March 4 fire to a fire marshal. An investigation was completed which lead to the charges being filed against Berns.

According to the report, Berns was alone at home when the fire started. Other members of his family, including his wife and children, were elsewhere.

According to the criminal complaint Berns told investigators that he had been working in his garage when he noticed black smoke coming from the house. He then placed a 911 call.

According to the report, Berns told investigators that his family did not have financial trouble. When his wife was later questioned by authorities, she stated otherwise. She told investigators that the Berns family as behind on its home mortgage and had other financial problems.

The home and its contents were insured for $299,755.

According to the report, the fire marshal said he found that so much sheetrock in the kitchen ceiling had been torn down that he could see the floor joists in the upstairs bathroom. Hanging from two of the floor joists were pieces of charred cloth, and the marshal also found a pair of underwear hanging from an electrical wire near the joists. The fire marshal said that the cause of the fire was not electrical. He reported that he believed the cloth had been lit by an open flame, like from a burner from the kitchen's gas cooking range. Investigators determined that one of those burners had been turned on that