Willits arson case goes cold
BASALT – The investigation into an arson that destroyed a home in the Willits neighborhood of Basalt in January has hit a dead-end, according to police and a prosecutor.
The Basalt Police Department turned over its case to Eagle County District Attorney Mark Hurlbert’s office roughly three weeks ago for guidance on whether to make an arrest.
“We found there was not enough information for us to file charges,” Hurlbert said Wednesday.
The police department was informed of the decision, he said. It will be up to the department to decide whether to keep working the case.
Basalt Police Sgt. Penny Paxton said the arson is considered an open case, but she expressed frustration at the difficulty in finding evidence.
“We determined from the beginning that an accelerant was used,” Paxton said. “I believe it was an arson, but what can I prove?”
Cash hasn’t loosened lips in the case. Safeco insurance, part of Liberty Mutual Group, offered a $25,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest and conviction. To date, it hasn’t generated any tips.
The fire destroyed the house of Harold “Chip” Unglert on the evening of Jan. 12. One of Unglert’s two renters was at home at the time of the fire. He escaped without injury, although his hair was singed.
Investigators discovered that an unknown type of accelerant was poured on several points of the exterior. Firefighters were suspicious because the fire burned more rapidly than usual, and the burn pattern didn’t follow a typical progression.
The two renters cooperated with police and both have expressed a willingness to take a polygraph test, Paxton said. The tests weren’t performed because of scheduling conflicts, she said. There is only one licensed administrator of the test in the area, in Grand Junction, according to Paxton.
Unglert never communicated directly with police investigators, Paxton said. In a Jan. 16 interview, he agreed with investigators that the fire started on the exterior of the house, but he was skeptical that an accelerant was used. He couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.
Unglert had an alibi for his whereabouts on the evening of the fire. He was in a meditation class in Basalt that was attended by several other people. He told The Aspen Times last winter that he learned of the fire after receiving a telephone call from a family member.
Unglert and his renters lost all their possessions inside the house. The structure was declared a total loss. Half of the second story collapsed in the fire. The charred remains are still standing four months later, much to the chagrin of neighbors on Lake Court in Willits.
“It’s been a mess,” said Mark Logan, who lives with his wife and young son directly across the street from the front of Unglert’s house. It was bad enough having the wreckage visible all winter, he said. It’s even worse now that residents are spending more time outdoors.
A wire fence was erected around the site, but it’s not very well secured. Neighbors chased some curious teens out of the site earlier this year. The front of the house is partially boarded up. Debris was pulled from the interior to the front yard and covered with a tarp. Faded police tape is strewn across the fence.
The view of the front is partially shielded by trees. Aimee Yllanes has had no such luck. Her family lives directly behind the Unglert house. The view from their dining area, an upstairs office and a child’s bedroom is dominated by the charred debris of the house, particularly the partially collapsed second story.
Yllanes said she can’t help but wonder when a bathtub will go crashing through the weakened debris of the second floor.
Both Yllanes and Logan said they are concerned for their children’s health. Debris blows off the ruined house in high winds. Yllanes said she doesn’t let her two kids play in the back yard any longer for fear they will step in glass or ash.
Logan peppered state government officials about the health implications after seeing material blow off the site.
“You can just see the raw insulation flying out of there,” he said.
State officials have said they are powerless to intervene because the house is a crime scene, according to Logan.
Yllanes said she and some of her neighbors were “partying in the streets” at one point last winter when a crane came to the site.
“We thought they were going to tear down the whole house,” she said. Instead, it was used to knock down part of the second story that was ready to tumble. That stabilized the site for insurance company investigators.
Since then, the structure hasn’t been touched.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” Yllanes said.
Basalt officials have said they understand the charred house is an eyesore, but they don’t have the authority to order that it be removed. Town Manager Bill Kane told Willits homeowners in a public meeting last winter that their Homeowners Association probably is in the best position to take action. But, Logan noted Wednesday, that would require an expenditure that the association has been unwilling to make.
It couldn’t be determined if Safeco has paid Unglert for his loss. Officials with the insurer couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. The issue is further complicated because Unglert’s mortgage lender started a foreclosure action prior to the fire. No foreclosure sale has taken place yet, so Unglert remains the owner.
Paxton said she understands the frustrations of the neighbors.
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