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Kendall cops think they’ve solved multiple arson mystery

MARIANNE MATHER / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Mark Pankuch's home was finally destroyed by fire November 26 Yorkville.  This is third

MARIANNE MATHER / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Mark Pankuch's home was finally destroyed by a fire on November 26 in Yorkville. This is the third fire to start in the unoccupied house. 12-4-07

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Updated: April 26, 2013 6:02AM

Mark Pankuch didn’t get really angry until the third time someone lit his dream house on fire.

The first fire had been odd, bewildering and inconvenient.

The second fire was sad. The April 2007 blaze had destroyed Pankuch’s beautiful 7,000-foot Yorkville home, collapsing the second floor into the first. Of course, Pankuch was upset. But mostly he was just heartsick. Who would do this to his house? And why?

Then, the third fire. The house was not even finished being rebuilt when the blaze broke out. It burned so hot, the foundation cracked. The house was gone.

Three fires at the same house in less than six months? It was insult burned on top of humiliation, all with no apparent reason.

It would take five years, but detectives would finally tell Pankuch who they believe burned down his house: Keenan Slagel, a 29-year-old Plainfield car mechanic who enjoys Christian music. That answer was even more stupefying. Pankuch had never heard of Slagel.

And by all accounts, it’s unlikely Slagel had ever heard of the Pankuch.

Why would someone burn down a stranger’s house? Police and prosecutors have given few comments while arson charges are still pending. But the answer is likely tied to an old flame.

The dream house

For months, Mark and Trai Pankuch searched for the perfect home. The married medical physicists were ready to start a family, so they looked at dozens of places before they found the two-story house, tucked away in a peaceful subdivision on Winding Road, just outside Yorkville city limits.

It had everything Mark and Trai wanted. The neighborhood was quiet and secluded. The wide green yard, led down to tiny Morgan Creek. Inside, a warm, inviting front room pulled you into the house, towards a massive sun room. Mark and Trai could already imagine parties in the basement, family dinners in the kitchen. They picked out rooms for their kids who were not yet born.

“We couldn’t wait to get in there,” Pankuch said.

Fire One
March 30, 2007

The Pankuches signed the final sale papers on March 29, 2007, less than 48 hours before the first fire.

A friend with a carpet cleaning business was coming in the next morning to shampoo the $880,000 house, so Mark and Trai returned to their home in Oswego to sleep (the new house still had no beds). But at 9:30 p.m. March 29, both were still wide awake. Too excited to sleep, the couple decided to drive back to their new home to dust, clean out the refrigerator — typical new home stuff. Early the next morning, they returned to Oswego, exhausted and happy.

A few hours later, Mark Pankuch got a call from the friend he’d hired to wash the carpets. There was a problem: A window was broken and it seemed like there’d been a fire in the house, the friend said. When Pankuch arrived, the scene was a riddle.

The inside of the house was covered in soot. Someone had thrown a brick throw a window. There was a burn mark on the living room carpet, but the carpet was soaked.

It was all so strange that Pankuch didn’t immediately realize the fire was arson. He finally called 911 and told the operator he thought there was a fire in his house.

As best police could figure, someone had broken into the house by throwing the brick through the window. Then, they had tried to start a fire in the living room. But a large fish tank built into a nearby wall had cracked. The water that spilled out extinguished the fire.

An insurance company would pay thousands to clean the home. The Pankuches minds were not so easy to clear up. Why would someone do this?

Fire Two
April 21, 2007

Pankuch was at a conference in Chicago on April 21, when he got a call from the police: Do you know there was a fire at your house? the officer asked. Of course, Pankuch said. We took care of that.

No, the officer said, a new fire. You need to come here right away.

This time, the fish tank couldn’t stop the fire. The top floor had collapsed; the home was a total loss. Pankuch sat on the front yard of his one-time dream home.

“Why would someone do this?” he thought. “It just doesn’t make any logical sense.”

As far as they could figure, the Pankuches had no enemies. They hadn’t even met their neighbors, much less annoyed them yet. The sale of the house had been friendly. They started to consider anything. Mark Pankuch is white and Trai Pankuch is Vietnamese: was this a hate crime?

Police were puzzled, too. The sheriff said “everybody is a suspect.” Of course, that included the Pankuches. Police wondered if they were burning the house down in some sort of insurance scheme. (Albeit one that didn’t seem to earn them any money.) The Pankuches answered questions, took polygraphs.

Police and the Pankuches held out hope that if the arsonist could be identified, the fires would stop.

Meanwhile — although they still hadn’t lived in the home — the Pankuches were responsible for lawn care. So, Mark Pankuch would cut the grass, take care of the landscaping, with the charred remains of his home as the backdrop. It was gratifying and humiliating.

The insurance company wanted to rebuild because the foundation was still solid. Mark Pankuch had serious doubts about whether he wanted to live there. Whatever was going on, it was clear the home was no longer safe. He and his wife wanted to start a family but how could they ever close their eyes at night?

The Pankuches decided to rebuild, sell the new house and recoup their money, hopefully.

Fire Three:
Oct. 11, 2007

The house was not even complete — the doors had not been hung — when the structure was torched again. Just the chimney was left standing.

After the third fire, the insurance company threw in the towel. That was not a big problem because the Pankuches no longer wanted to re-build. They sold the bare land at a huge financial loss so that they didn’t have to pay property taxes.

It took a long time to find a new home. They loved the Yorkville home so much nothing else seemed to match up.

But even in their new home, they couldn’t feel safe. After all, the arsonist was still out there. They bought a top-notch security system. And since they were now considered high risk — three fires in six months will do that — their homeowner’s insurance was $30,000 a year.

Every three months, Pankuch would call police to see if they’d found anything. The officers could only provide vague encouragement: I know this is crazy, they’d say, but these things do pop up years later. Pankuch was doubtful.

The charges

Five years later, on Oct. 30, 2012, the Kendall County Sheriff’s Office issued a press release. They had charged Keenan Slagel of Plainfield with starting the April 21, 2007, fire at the Winding Road home. (He was later charged with starting the March 30, 2007, fire. Prosecutors have not charged Slagel with in the third fire, but they are not looking for any other suspects.) The press release included a curious statement: Slagel had no connection to the homeowners.

Since then, police have not elaborated much. The Kendall County Sheriff’s Office would not comment on a pending case. Kendall County State’s Attorney Eric Weis also declined to discuss specifics.

But Slagel’s one other previous significant criminal case makes the connection more clear. In 2004, Slagel was charged with felony criminal trespassing for entering the same Winding Road Drive home that would later burn three times. Police records obtained by the Beacon-News show he entered the house through a side door and was discovered looking through the drawers of his ex-fiance. According to court records, a few months before the break-in, the couple had split up. Slagel was devastated. During their investigation, detectives learned the former fiance believed Slagel had been following her.

As part of the investigation, Slagel was asked to provide a written statement to police. Although detectives were investigating a break-in, Slagel filled almost an entire page-and-a-half with heartsick details about his engagement, break-up and rekindled romance. Breaking into the house and rifling through her drawers merits two sentences.

Near the end of his report, the officer who spoke to Slagel added: “Keenan advised me that he would never do anything to harm (the ex-girlfriend) or anybody else; that he is not that kind of guy.” Slagel eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor criminal trespassing and was ordered to complete 60 hours of community service, which he did successfully, according to court records.

Still, why start a fire at an ex-girlfriend’s house?

The key is in another court document. The Pankuches signed for the house on March 29 — just hours before the first fire started. Law enforcement sources believe Slagel did not know the Pankuches had bought the house when the first fire started. In other words, if he started the fire, he accidentally targeted the wrong people.

Court case

Kendall County Detective Joe Jasnosz said Slagel was not originally a suspect in the fires. Jasnosz would not say what led to charges other than to say “people remember the big cases.”

“They may not remember all the smaller crimes, but they remember big ones like this,” he said.

Slagel is scheduled to be in court Tuesday for a pre-trial hearing before 27th Circuit Court Judge Timothy McCann. He is still being held at the Kendall County Jail on $500,000 bail. His attorney declined to comment for this story.

Slagel’s Facebook profile indicates he was working at an auto detailing shop before his arrest. His YouTube account shows Christian music concerts he had attended or enjoyed. In online message boards, several people said Slagel had turned his life around and was dedicated to helping others.

Stephen Petry, pastor at Cornerstone Community Church, said Slagel occasionally referenced a wild past, but Petry never saw any indication. Slagel played guitar, sang with the church’s worship team and led youth groups until he was arrested.

“He was a good leader,” Petry said. “He was just a good guy.”

For the Pankuches, the charges are a relief. They no longer have to look over their shoulder.

“It’s just a sad story. We never slept in that house, not one night ever,” Mark Pankuch said. “Everyone in life has heartbreak but you can’t deal with it in that way.”

Amazingly, the experience has not made the Pankuches bitter. The five-year penalty on their homeowners insurance is about to expire so they’ll be paying normal rates again. They have three great kids and a wonderful new home.

They also have perspective.

Through their work on radiology machines, Mark and Trai Pankuch routinely have contact with young children dealing with aggressive forms of cancer. That tends to make even something as bizarre as having your house set on fire three times because the suspect allegedly didn’t know his ex had moved not seem like such a big deal.

“You know there’s a lot of people with worse problems,” he said. “There’s people dealing with a lot more every day.”

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