By Stan Maddux
ELKHART, Ind. – Authorities are hoping a $10,000 reward will help close the books on a still unsolved rash of northern Indiana barn fires.
Farm Bureau, Inc. chapters in Elkhart, Kosciusko, Marshall and St. Joseph counties, where 12 confirmed barn fires happened this year, contributed to the reward.
“We hope a reward will help catch the arsonist sooner,” said Lynn Loucks, President of the Elkhart County Farm Bureau.
All but one of the fires has occurred since April. Many of the fires occurred within a short distance and time frame of each other.
In late September, for example, a barn and storage shed about four miles from each other near Wakarusa went up in flames just over three hours apart. One of the fires claimed the lives of 30 animals.
Two barns within two miles of each other in Kosciusko County also burned at about the same time the previous month.
The most recent fires Oct. 1 involve two barns five miles apart near Syracuse.
Elkhart County Police Capt. Mike Culp said he couldn’t reveal if any leads have developed or whether the cases are suspected to be connected.
He said no additional information is being shared with the public right now to protect the integrity of what he described as “pretty sensitive” ongoing investigations.
“There’s a lot of time and effort to investigating these. It’s a lot different than other crimes that we may encounter,” he said.
Eight of the fires have been in Elkhart County.
Loucks said the reward is for information leading to an arson conviction in the fires. The reward will remain available until the “parties responsible are found,” he said.
Loucks said the reward has not resulted in any substantial leads, so far, but word about the cash incentive is just spreading.
He said Indiana Farm Bureau, Inc. provided the first $2,000 of the reward money.
Loucks, who has a 250-acre farm within five miles of four of the barns set ablaze, said some farmers in the area have installed surveillance systems, extra lighting and taken other security measures to keep from becoming a victim.
Loucks said he hasn’t done anything to beef up security except make sure his barn door at night is shut.
He’s confident in the ability of his outdoor dog to chase away intruders and wake him up. “I got a good dog. When somebody drives in, he barks,” he said.
Loucks said he and his neighbors, while traveling, are keeping a sharper eye out for suspicious activity. “We’re watching out for each other,” he said.
Loucks said the emotions of farmers range from anger to being jittery enough to have trouble sleeping at night.
Board members at his Farm Bureau chapter have also discussed the possibility of hiring a private investigator to help police try to uncover more leads, he said.
Loucks, who drives a school bus, raises mostly corn and soybeans. He used to keep a lot of cattle and hogs but is down to four steers with retirement just a few years away. His barn contains a lot of hay and straw along with machinery.
Loucks said nobody has been injured and no other livestock have perished. There hasn’t been a fire in about a month, but concern has not eased up because of previous extended periods between fires.
“Nobody likes it, that’s for sure. It’s frustrating,” he said.