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Grand jury indicts Fairbanks fire victim for murder, arson

Dermot Cole

FAIRBANKS—An 18-year-old burned in an apartment fire in January now faces charges for murder, arson, manslaughter, burglary and criminal mischief stemming from the blaze that killed two people and destroyed a major apartment building.

Police charged that fire victim Conar Lee Groppel was responsible for the blaze as well as the deaths of two residents. Groppel suffered burns severe enough that he was flown to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. At the time police said they wanted to talk to him because he was a witness.

Jane Connolly, 50, and Kristina Pence, 39, died in the fire, which tore through the two-story building on Geraghty Street at about 3:45 a.m. on Jan. 29. The fire left 36 people homeless and led to numerous cases of smoke inhalation, burns and exposure.

Groppel has been jailed since early this week after he was charged with criminal trespass and assault in connection with an  unrelated incident in Eagle. Alaska State Troopers said Groppel entered a residence without permission and when a village public safety officer talked to him, Groppel acted aggressively and refused to drop a pocketknife. The VPSO said he stopped Groppel, who also carried a Bowie knife in a sheath, with a shot from a Taser.

According to city police and information on the state court system website, a grand jury indicted Groppel on 12 charges in connection with the apartment fire, including first-degree murder, second-degree murder, manslaughter, two counts of burglary and two counts of arson, as well as criminal mischief and two counts of tampering with physical evidence.

On April 24, the owner of the building destroyed in the fire, Monica Susan Carney, said the fire had been a disastrous experience for her family. She appeared before the borough assembly to ask for a waiver of the fees charged by the landfill for dumping the wreckage of the building. The assembly approved the waiver, estimated to cost from $35,000 to $57,000.

As she testified, she mentioned that she had spoken with detectives about the investigation.

“Somebody did this on purpose and they’re investigating as to why they did it,” said Carney. “I am still waiting to find out what exactly happened that night.”

She said she was dealing with a person who had an option to buy the building and that she found out only three days before the fire about the lack of insurance coverage. She said she didn’t have time “to do anything to protect my property and I’ve had the place since 1990.” Most of the loss was not covered by insurance.