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16 News Now Investigates: Barn Burnings

Published: Jul. 8, 2021 at 6:30 PM EDT
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(WNDU) - There are family farms right here in Michiana that have stood the test of time, only to suffer a difficult loss that’s hard to explain.

The Indiana State Fire Marshal’s Office is investigating seven barns that have gone up in flames across three counties.

The first happened in Foraker on April 13, followed by two more barn fires along the edge of Elkhart and Kosciusko Counties later that month.

By the time Gary Eby’s farm was hit on the night of May 3, he was already aware of a possible arsonist in the community.

“I think somebody drove by and set the place on fire. there’s no question about,” he said.

Eby told 16 News Now reporter Jack Springgate at the time that almost everything in the barn burned, including several items that he cherished.

“My dad, when he was a kid, they took an old buggy and cut the wheels down and made a pony wagon. That was in there and I really hated to lose that but hey, it’s gone.”

While crews put out the fire at Eby’s farm, a second blaze was leveling another barn just down the road.

Debbie Schmidt and her husband were restoring their family’s barn when they lost it and the valuables inside. But to her, it means even more.

“It just is gut-wrenching, Schmidt explains. “Those personal items are gone, but the memories will always be there.”

Before the barns on the Eby and Schmidt properties burned down, a beautiful barn that’s been standing in Milford since 1928 fell victim to what officials are calling a “suspicious fire”.

The barn has been in the Jackson family for three generations. They were planning to use it as a horse barn for their granddaughter one day before it went up in flames on April 27-- right in the middle of farming season.

The Jacksons lost equipment that was stored inside, including a 1955 Ford tractor they were planning to restore. More importantly, the barn is where irreplaceable memories were made during family reunions… but it’s now a total loss.

The Jackson family says anyone in the area with an old barn is staying up later and patrolling the roads a little bit more.

In Kosciusko County, two more barns burned down on June 10.

A call came in around eleven at night for a fire just south of Nappanee. Just 20 minutes later and less than two miles up the road, Mike Mast woke up to find his barn also on fire.

“You could see the flames, it was about 3 or 4 feet up in the air from the roof,” he told 16 News Now.

Still, Mast wasn’t as surprised by the fire as you may think.

“I figured one of these times that the guy would hit us, down the road. but i didn’t think it would be this quick… The barn is close to the road and the guy’s been targeting barns that are close to the road seems like,” he says.

Like Mast, other affected families can’t help but notice a pattern.

It was around 11 o’clock at night a couple miles apart,” Debbie Schmidt says of the fires that hit her property and Gary Eby’s farm.

“And Kosciusko’s, ironically, 11 o’clock at night, a couple miles apart… I’m not to judge but there’s an awful similarity there.”

But it’s still too soon to say if the seven fires are the work of an arsonist. So far, fire agencies have deemed them “suspicious”.

The Kosciusko County Sheriff’s Office is investigating them as arson and partnering with Elkhart and St. Joseph Counties

“They’ve had a couple suspicious fires up there so we have teamed up with the two sheriff’s offices and the detective bureaus are actively looking into this,” explains Sheriff Kyle Dukes.

We also spoke to the New Paris Fire Department. They can’t currently comment on the cause of the fires, but are warning people to watch out for suspicious activity.

Kosciusko County Sheriff Dukes has a similar message for anyone who lives near barns.

“If you see a vehicle parked, if you see a vehicle that is acting suspiciously, if your gut tells you something is wrong, please call our dispatch center, report it,” he says.

Those who have already experienced loss on their properties are convinced that someone is behind this.

“There’s been enough barn fires in the area that if this was arson, he wasn’t going to stop, he/she/them I don’t know who wasn’t going to stop, and unfortunately, that hasn’t happened,” says Debbie Schmidt.

She wants to see the fires stop before someone gets hurt.

“You will slip up. you know? I hope it’s not at the expense of people, animals, or somebody getting injured.”

The fires have brought a sad end for these symbols of family strength and perseverance.

“I look around at so many barns and the history that they show and they have so many stories to tell. The sad part is, for the person that’s doing this, there must not be a good story in their memory for them to want to burn these barns down,” Schmidt shares.

These seven barn fires remain under investigation, so the official cause for each blaze has not been made public at the time of this report.

If you have any information on these suspicious fires, you can call Indiana’s Arson Hotline at 1-800-382-4628.

We’ll continue following the investigations and keep you updated on any new information that’s released.

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