Rebuilding begins after barn fires; investigation also underway

Sep. 22—GOSHEN — Hammerfalls pelted along with raindrops and saw blades squealed west of Goshen Tuesday as part of work to rebuild barns lost in near-simultaneous fires on two properties last weekend.

Relatives, friends and neighbors of two families headed by Daniel Imhoff and Nelson Martin flocked to their homes in a show of support and to help reconstruct what was lost.

"We're surrounded by a caring community that's wiling to come in and help rebuild," said Nelson Martin. "It seems everybody wants to help in some way, and we're really humbled to be on the receiving end."

At the same time, police added the incidents to ongoing investigations into a series of barn fires in Elkhart County and surrounding counties this year. Local agencies may be partnering to address the cases together.

The first fire from the weekend was reported at Martin's property, 25445 C.R. 38, around 11:25 p.m. Saturday. Martin said he woke to the sound of knocking and found two couples, apparently passersby, at his front door. They warned him of what his eyes confirmed when he opened the door, that his equipment and hay shed was on fire.

Local firefighters from several agencies, led by the Harrison Township Fire Department, responded and began tackling the blaze. As they made headway into extinguishing the flames, Martin said a second call came in, forcing crews to peel away and respond to that.

The second fire was reported at Daniel Imhoff's dairy farm, 62045 C.R. 9, around 12:45 a.m. Sunday, about three and a half miles north of Martin's home and close to an hour and a half after the first fire started.

Imhoff, who described Martin as a cousin, said his family had gone inside for the night shortly before the fire to his barn started.

"We just got done with the night milking," Imhoff said. "We were in the house less than a half hour before the barn burned down."

After that fire was brought under control, Imhoff said the barn was lost along with 10 cows, 13 calves, six horses, 4,000 bales of hay, and numerous pieces of equipment and other items.

Meanwhile, firefighters were called back to Martin's home around 5:45 a.m. Sunday as a second fire ignited and damaged another storage building. He believes a stray ember may have sparked the second fire that morning.

Yet both he and Imhoff suspect arson was behind the first fires. They cited the timing for when they started and the proximity of their properties as clues.

Martin also pointed out his structure wasn't wired with electricity. He believed he saw the fire coming out from under the roof, from a straw bale in an overhang. Imhoff argued his family had staked fresh hay from the field earlier that day, using equipment from outside the barn, so he didn't think that was the source of the fire there.

Both men said they didn't see any suspicious people on their properties.

The weekend fires bring the number of barn fires in Elkhart County since the spring up to about six or seven. They're among several other fires that damaged or destroyed barns in Kosciusko and St. Joseph counties, and potentially Marshall County. Kosciusko had three fires in the northwestern area of the county about a month-and-a-half ago, police said.

The incidents are under investigation in their respective counties. As of Tuesday, Elkhart County Sheriff's Office Capt. Michael Culp couldn't say whether there were any connections between them, or whether they were intentionally set.

"I don't know that anybody could say that they're related," Culp said.

He added the only concrete correlation so far was these were all barn fires. However, with the number of fires in the area, he said, "it gives rise to concern."

Kosciusko County Sheriff Kyle Dukes believes the frequency of the fires within the northern Indiana vicinity is suspicious.

Of about five or six barn fires this year, he said his office is investigating three from the northwestern portion of the county.

"We're treating them as arson cases, and we are investigating them as criminal cases," Dukes said. "You don't have this many fires, especially in this one general area, without there being something not right."

He said his office will team with the other county sheriff's offices to pool findings and resources to try and narrow down more similarities in their cases. A task force could also be formed to help focus the investigations.

Following the three fires, he said his deputies increased patrols in that area, watching for suspicious vehicles and people. Tips also came in and have been followed up on, he said.

Dukes held a meeting with about 50 local Amish bishops about a month ago to discuss the fires as fear was spreading through those communities.

"They were nervous," he said. "They were scared. You had people waiting in barns. You had people sleeping in barns."

Dukes said he urged the residents to let police handle the matter. The fires seemed to go quiet after that for about a month, and he said he'd hoped that was the end it.

Yet the new blazes then ignited near Goshen over the weekend, raising new fears.

One of Imhoff's neighbors, Nicci Sloat, launched an online fundraiser after the fire to help offset some of the family's losses. As of Tuesday afternoon, more than $40,000 had been raised.

"The devastation's not just with their structure," Sloat said. "It's emotional."

She too believes the fires late Saturday night and early Sunday morning were intentionally set, saying they couldn't have occurred naturally.

"It's evil — pure evil," Sloat said. "Who would do something like that?"

While the investigations are ongoing, both Culp and Dukes urged residents to be observant and report suspicious people to police.

"If people see something suspicious, they should call and report it as they see it," Culp said.

Culp also urged patience, saying investigations into matters like barn fires take time to determine their origins.

Aimee Ambrose can be reached at or 574-533-2151, ext. 240316. Follow her on Twitter at @aambrose_TGN.