Victim in fatal fire might have set blaze: Report

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Stacy Vogel
November 14, 2007
— State investigators believe Julaine “Julie” Houfe started the fire that took her life Aug. 31, but they’re not sure if it was accidental or intentional, according to a report from state investigators.

The Wisconsin Department of Justice report lists the cause of the fire at 6104 E. County N, Milton, as “undetermined” but rules out non-human causes such as wiring or gas and says there was no evidence anyone besides Julie was involved.

The report listed two possible causes: Either Julie started the fire accidentally through a lit cigarette or on purpose to prevent her estranged husband, David Houfe Sr., from acquiring the house.

“Investigators concluded at this time that the issue of the victim’s carelessly smoking in the home was possible, along with the possibility of her setting the fire in a spite revenge to prevent David Sr. from getting the house,” the report reads.

The Janesville Gazette received the report Tuesday from the Wisconsin Department of Justice through a request filed under the Wisconsin Open Records Law.

Local officials immediately labeled the Aug. 31 fire suspicious because of the controversy surrounding the house and requested the state Fire Marshal’s Office to investigate.

The home was at the center of Julie and David’s contentious divorce proceedings, and a Rock County judge had awarded temporary possession to David. Julie had been moving out of the house that day so David could move in.

David was ruled out as a suspect in the fire because he was at a party in Edgerton with his family that night, the Rock County Sheriff’s Department said.

According to state report, Julie died of carbon monoxide poisoning from smoke inhalation. She was found lying on her bed in the basement, fully clothed, with a blanket pulled over her head.

Investigators believe the fire started in the kitchen near the top of the stairs, the report says.

Investigators did not find evidence of accelerants used to start the fire, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there, said Lt. Todd Christiansen with the Rock County Sheriff’s Department.

“Some fires, all the evidence burns up,” he said.

Family members described Julie as a heavy drinker and smoker who had tried to commit suicide “many times,” the report said. Investigators found empty alcohol bottles and cigarette butts surrounding Julie’s bed and scattered throughout the house.

Some family members said she told “anyone who would listen” that David would never move back into the house and threatened to “burn (him) out,” the report said.

Julie’s body was tested for the presence of alcohol, but the toxicology results have not yet come in, said Rock County Coroner Jenifer Keach.

Julie’s sister, Kimberly Winkle, and a close friend declined to comment on the report. The Gazette was not able to reach David Houfe for comment.

The case now is closed unless new information comes in, Christiansen said. Officials might never know how the fire started, he said.

“At this point, there’s no further leads … and there’s no suspects,” he said. “A lot of times, fires are undetermined in the cause.”

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