An exhaustive two-year investigation culminated Friday in the guilty plea of an Arizona man to the largest arson fire in the history of the Boone County Fire District.
Francis Wildman, 82, of Prescott, Ariz., admitted setting his son’s house ablaze the night of his granddaughter’s wedding.
“This is the most intricate, involved arson case I’ll ever work,” said Ken Hines, assistant chief of the Boone County Fire Protection District.
Wildman pleaded guilty Friday to second-degree arson in Boone County Circuit Court. He admitted to setting fire on May 12, 2001, to the home of his son, Mark Wildman. The house is at 3883 Yeager Road, northwest of Columbia.
Wildman was fined $1,000, plus court costs totaling about $1,300, by Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler. Second-degree arson carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
“This man’s punishment was to plead guilty,” said Connie Sullivan, Boone County assistant prosecutor. “For the family’s sake, it was better not to go to trial.”
Hines said Wildman is in poor health and was directed by the judge to return to his Arizona community.
“It would not serve the citizens of Missouri to incarcerate him,” Hines said. “This man has taken a significant hit to his personal reputation in his home community.”
Mark and Judith Wildman were attending the wedding of their daughter at the time of the fire. Francis Wildman was not invited to the wedding.
Damages from the fire exceeded $400,000, making it the largest arson fire in the history of Boone County Fire District. One firefighter suffered a minor heart attack while fighting the fire. Hines said the fire was quickly identified as an act of arson.
“Through witness interviews and a thorough scene examination, we determined that the fire was incendiary,” Hines said.
On Sunday, the day after the fire, the Boone County Sheriff’s Department was brought into the investigation. The next day, Missouri state fire marshals were included, specifically the Arson K-9 unit.
Hines said Francis Wildman was identified as a suspect within the first week after the fire.
“We discovered he was in town almost accidentally,” Hines said.
The Wildmans’ caller ID showed a call from the Columbia Red Roof Inn on the night of the wedding, five minutes before the wedding was scheduled to begin. Investigators found that Francis Wildman stayed at the Red Roof Inn at the time of the fire.
“There were a number of suspects at the outset,” Hines said.
“Francis Wildman was the only suspect not eliminated through the investigative process.”
The investigation slowed to a crawl after the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Hines was recalled to military active duty at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, where he remained until October of 2002. His assistant, John Metz, who was following up on the investigation, resigned in January of 2002.
Hines did not forget about the case during his absence. On weekends he would return to Columbia and attempt to follow the threads of the case, but it wasn’t until his return in the fall of 2002 that he could aggressively pursue it once again.
“Once I got back, the pieces just really fell into place,” Hines said.
Using information from AMTRAK police — Wildman traveled by rail — and phone and credit card records, Hines was able to piece together Wildman’s movements. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms assisted in the record tracking.
In March of 2003, investigators had gathered enough probable cause for a search warrant of Wildman’s house. Hines traveled to Prescott, with Detective Ken Kreigh of the Boone County Sheriff’s Department.
There, on March 18, they interviewed Wildman. After being read his Miranda rights, Wildman agreed to talk, then grew silent when the discussion turned to the fire. Hines and Kreigh then served a search warrant with assistance from Yavapai County (Ariz.) sheriff’s deputies, seizing personal calendars, diaries, dossiers, travel records and other personal items from Wildman.
After returning to Columbia and sifting through the evidence, investigators found a picture of a meticulous man who carefully planned his crime at every step, Sullivan said.
“Many of his entries were written in code,” Sullivan said. “We had to put the puzzle together.”
Prosecutors decided that Wildman’s personal records provided enough evidence to issue an arrest warrant. On March 25, 2003, Sullivan filed an arrest warrant request for Wildman, who waived extradition and was arrested in Missouri the following day.
After Wildman’s arrest, several facts came out indicating the level of premeditation on Wildman’s part. In the months leading up to the wedding, he placed calls to the Columbia Police Department and Boone County Sheriff’s Department, claiming that Mark Wildman, his son, was using and dealing drugs.
“This was an attempt to misdirect the investigation before it even began,” Sullivan said.
During the disclosure phase of proceedings, prosecutors received a videotape from the defense made by Wildman, labeled “Our Son.” Wildman intended to use the videotape as his alibi, claiming he wanted to watch his granddaughter’s wedding from afar.
Sullivan said that “Our Son” was really a pun for arson.
“He likes irony and secrets and feeling like he’s putting one over on people,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan made clear that Wildman was motivated by more than a simple snub.
“Everybody thinks he did this because he wasn’t invited to the wedding,” Sullivan said. “There is an entry in his calendar before the wedding plans were made that indicated his plans to torch the house.”
Francis Wildman has worked out a settlement with the insurance agency that paid off the damages to the house.