Seattle police arrested a former Aspen man Wednesday on a warrant for first-degree felony arson after the Hunter Creek apartment he was living in was badly damaged in a fire.
Joseph Kern, 36, is fighting extradition from Washington state, where he now lives, Aspen police Detective Ian MacAyeal said Friday. That allowed Kern to be released Thursday from the King County Jail on a $10,000 bond.
Police have been investigating Kern’s involvement in the fire since it started just after 2 p.m. on Oct. 1. An Aspen judge on April 10 signed the warrant, which says Kern received about $20,000 in an insurance claim for the fire.
Two days after the fire, staff at CP Burger in Aspen called police to report that Kern had walked into the restaurant and took about $2,000 from a safe. Kern had worked as director of operations for six Aspen restaurants, including CP Burger, owned by Aspenites Craig and Samantha Cordts-Pearce. He was terminated from his job around that time.
Kern pleaded guilty in March to felony theft and was sentenced to a two-year deferred sentence in a plea deal that saw two burglary charges dropped.
Aspen prosecutor Andrea Bryan at his sentencing said it was clear at the time of the theft that Kern “was on some controlled substance or was having some sort of mental [breakdown].” She added that it was possibly a combination of the two.
The warrant says Aspen police interviewed Kern both before and after the fire. A police officer contacted him at 8:30 a.m. on Oct. 1 after his girlfriend said she was worried about his mental state, but “found no reason to take Kern into protective custody.” The officer noted that Kern lit a cigarette with a butane lighter while talking to him.
About 1:16 p.m. that day, the woman told police she went to their apartment to look for Kern. She said he was inside and had locked her out.
The woman “called Kern while at the front door,” MacAyeal wrote in the warrant. “[She] heard Kern’s phone ring and heard Kern talking from inside the apartment.”
He apparently refused to let her in, and she left around 1:22 p.m.
“Kern was known to be in the apartment at 1:22 p.m.,” the warrant says. “Flames were seen in the window at 2:08 p.m. This leaves a 46-minute time period from when Kern is known to be in the apartment to flames being seen in the window by” a passerby.
Colorado Bureau of Investigations arson investigator Jerry Means was on the scene less than two hours later, MacAyeal wrote. Means established that the fire started on the center of a mattress in the apartment’s one bedroom.
“Means did not find any accelerates used in the fire [and] did not find anything that would indicate the fire started accidentally,” the warrant says. “He did not find any cigarette remains or any outside source.”
Aspen Fire Marshal Ed Van Walraven took a sample of the mattress pad and bedding that were determined to be the fire’s point of origin.
Meanwhile, the night of Oct. 1, Kern, who had learned police wanted to speak with him, called MacAyeal around 8 p.m. He professed to know nothing about how the fire started, the warrant says.
He also allegedly said he was speaking to MacAyeal from Denver at the time, though a friend of Kern’s later told police that he had met him at an Aspen restaurant just before 9 p.m. that day.
MacAyeal notes in the warrant that it is “impossible to drive from Denver to Aspen in 56 minutes. No flights arrived in Aspen between these times.”
Kern’s cell-phone records allegedly show that he never left the valley, according to police.
Craig Cordts-Pearce, who knew police were looking for Kern, found him “in a manic state” but was able to persuade him to speak with the detectives, the warrant says.
On Oct. 2, MacAyeal and fellow Detective Walter Chi met with Kern at the Pitkin County Courthouse.
Kern later sued Cordts-Pearce’s business, alleging that he was owed more than $5,200 in wages, while the Cordts-Pearces made counterclaims contending they were owed $5,614. The lawsuit was dismissed earlier this month.
During his interview with the detectives, “Kern seemed drunk and under the influence of drugs,” MacAyeal wrote.
Kern was incapable of answering questions about the fire or establishing any time frames for the day of the alleged arson. He neither admitted nor denied starting the fire and eventually walked out of the interview, according to the warrant.
On Nov. 1, Chi met with Van Walraven, who conducted a “direct flame” fire test on the mattress and bedding sample. The material was alit with a butane lighter and “was engulfed in flames within minutes,” the warrant says.
A fire test in January using a lit cigarette allegedly produced no flames, with the cigarette extinguishing itself.
The tests lend to the theory offered by the CBI’s Means “that ‘direct flame’ was used to start the fire,” MacAyeal wrote.
According to the warrant, an insurance investigator met with Kern about the fire. The investigator allegedly told police that Kern admitted to being on a “frustrated rampage” and that he was emotionally overwhelmed. The insurance firm apparently still cut him a check.
MacAyeal wrote that “a pattern of emotional distress, lying and desperation ... point to Kern starting the fire on Oct. 1 between 1:22 p.m. and 2:08 p.m.”
MacAyeal on Friday said he expected Kern to appear in court in Aspen on May 20. On that day, Kern is expected to work out the details of having his probation for the theft conviction transferred to Washington state.
Seattle police contacted Kern on an unrelated matter and learned about the warrant for his arrest. He was then taken into custody.