A man facing arson charges in Aspen who had also recently been convicted of stealing cash from his employer was found dead from an apparent suicide in a home where he was renting a room in Seattle.
Joseph E. Kern was 36 years old. Seattle police found his body on Thursday after a friend of the homeowner came to check on the property and found Kern unresponsive on the floor of the garage. He had apparently fallen out of his car, which was parked in the garage with the driver-side door open and the front seat in a reclined position. The keys were in the ignition, which was turned on, but the car had apparently run out of gas.
Aspen police had been investigating Kern since Oct. 1, when a fire ignited in an apartment where he was living at Hunter Creek Condominiums. 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, but was terminated from his job around that time.
Kern pleaded guilty in March to felony theft and received to a two-year deferred sentence, as well as probation, in a plea deal that saw two burglary charges dropped.
Police concluded that Kern allegedly started the fire, likely using a lighter to ignite a mattress, and that he was the only person in the unit shortly before flames were seen coming out of a window, according to an arrest warrant affidavit on the arson charges. They also were suspicious because Kern allegedly lied to them about his whereabouts following the fire, when police were trying to interview him, according to the warrant.
The fire caused extensive damage to the apartment, but was put out before it could spread to other units. A judge signed a warrant for his arrest on felony arson charges on April 10, but Kern by that time was already living in Seattle. On April 17, Kern was pulled over for a traffic violation, and arrested on the warrant by Seattle police. He later posted bond.
Seattle police on Thursday, according to their report on the incident, found empty wine bottles throughout the house where Kern was living, as well as an empty whiskey bottle near his person in the garage. They also found paperwork on his Aspen court cases throughout the residence. He had packed up many of his belongings in boxes and suitcases that were placed in a hallway, according to the report.
The homeowner was out of town at the time, but received what he deemed an unusual text message from Kern at 1 a.m. on Thursday asking for the code to the garage, the Seattle police report says. Suspicious that Kern might be attempting to steal some of his belongings, the man called a friend and asked him to check on the house, according to the report, which is based on interviews with the homeowner and his friend. The homeowner and Kern did not know each other well, as Kern moved in in late March after responding to an ad on the Craigslist website, according to the report. The homeowner’s friend called police around 1 p.m., after finding Kern in the garage, where the smell of exhaust fumes was prevalent. A medical examiner who responded to the scene determined that Kern’s condition was consistent with carbon monoxide poisoning.
Kern was due back in court in Aspen on May 20, a date that was set before the arson warrant was issued to work out the details of having his probation for the theft conviction transferred to Washington state.
Anyone experiencing depression or suicidal thoughts is urged to call Aspen’s Hope Center, a 24-hour crisis counseling service at (970) 925-5858.