BETHEL — Police have arrested a suspect in connection with last week’s fire that killed three people in Bethel.
Prosecutors charged 35-year-old Adam Andrew with three counts of second-degree murder and one count of first-degree arson, among other offenses. In total, he faces 11 felony charges and six misdemeanor charges.
As of Monday, Andrew had pleaded not guilty to his misdemeanor counts and had not yet entered a plea for the felonies. He is being held at the Yukon Kuskokwim Correctional Center.
Police say Andrew started the fire that began around 4 a.m. Friday and burned for several hours at Bethel’s Association of Village Council Presidents Regional Housing Authority townhouses. Three people in one unit died after they were trapped inside, and an additional five people were injured.
Family members identified the three who died as Elder Sophie Engebreth, 15-year-old Melissa Engebreth and 13-year-old Brianna Engebreth. Melissa and Brianna were Sophie’s granddaughters by birth and daughters by adoption.
Another family member, Christopher Engebreth, was also in the apartment at the time of the fire and escaped by jumping out the second-story window. He is the grandmother’s son and the granddaughters’ uncle.
The fire destroyed two units and damaged six units total in the 31-unit apartment complex. Andrew lives in a unit near the ones that were most severely burned.
Investigator Skyler Smith wrote in an affidavit filed with charges that Andrew set a fire in the walkway between the two apartments that suffered the most damage while he was drunk. In the affidavit, Smith described one account from a 15-year-old eyewitness who said that they saw Andrew start the fire. Other neighbors told Smith that they heard yelling outside before the fire started.
According to the affidavit, a community service officer first arrived on the scene to respond to a report of an intoxicated male — Andrew — lying outside. When the officer arrived, he heard the “crackling of the fire” and reported it to Bethel police dispatch. He told Smith that’s when Andrew got up and responded aggressively, the affidavit said. Around the same time, other officers showed up and arrested Andrew.
Andrew told investigators that he began his night by finding a backpack with four bottles of vodka. He took two of them and started drinking them as he returned home, according to the affidavit, and he said that when he arrived at the apartments, his wife would not let him in because he was too intoxicated. Andrew then went to a friend’s house on Akakeek Street and continued drinking, he told investigators.
At that point, he blacked out, Andrew told investigators. He remembered only arriving at the apartments and then waking up in police custody, the affidavit said. During his interview with investigators, he told them that he did not set fire to the building. He also suggested that it could have been an electrical fire, according to the affidavit. He told Smith that he had issues with electricity in his own unit.
Andrew is scheduled to appear for a preliminary hearing on Aug. 23.
Neighbors told investigators that no sprinklers or fire alarms went off, and one said that AVCP earlier this year found that the smoke detectors in their unit weren’t working and they were never fixed, the affidavit stated.
Michaela Mike, who lives next door to the Engebreths, told KYUK that she got out of the building in the nick of time.
“My mom yelled, saying, ‘There’s a fire. There’s a fire.’ And I just got up and gathered my kids and their blankets, and grabbed whatever and ran out the door, and I saw the fire. If my mom wasn’t there, I think I wouldn’t have woke up,” said Mike.
Mike and another tenant, Galen Frank, said that they did not hear authorities on scene attempt to wake up residents. Mike and Frank also both told KYUK that neither fire alarms nor sprinklers went off in either of their units.
AVCP RHA President and CEO Mark Charlie said that AVCP RHA is temporarily relocating all the affected residents into unoccupied units within the complex.
According to the affidavit, Christopher Engebreth said that he had tried to get his family members to jump from an upstairs window, which he’d used to exit the building, but they remained trapped inside.
Other residents described the family as kind neighbors. Mike said that Sophie Engebreth always treated her well.
“Sophie was such a genuine, sweet, kind, gentle soul. She was always very nice,” said Mike.
A neighbor the same age as Melissa Engebreth said that they were best friends for years. She said that the two shared a “best friends” necklace: She had the “friends” side, and Melissa had the “best” side. She described Melissa as being a good friend to all and helpful to her grandmother, who was disabled.
The Engebreth family has started a GoFundMe for funeral-related expenses.