Two 17-year-old Crystal Lake residents have been linked to at least five rural McHenry County barn fires that caused more than $1 million in damage, according to authorities.
The McHenry County sheriff's office began investigating the suspicious fires on May 29, when crews put out a blaze in Woodstock. Since that date, there have been five more fires in hay barns in Woodstock, Marengo and Harvard, according to police.
Thanks to an anonymous public tip, investigators interviewed Joseph R. Gerdes of the 800 block of Coventry Lane and Andrew L. Wiegand of the 1400 block of Bridgedale Road on Friday. Police said both 17-year-olds admitted to their involvement with the six fires as well as to tampering with fire hydrants in Crystal Lake and setting abandoned furniture on fire.
Gerdes and Wiegand have been charged with five counts each of arson, criminal damage to property and criminal trespass to property, for their involvement in five of the six fires, according to the sheriff's department.
"It's amazing that nobody was injured, or worse, in any of these incidents that occurred," said Crystal Lake Police Cmdr. Dan Dziewior. "I would say it's unprecedented for that much damage to be caused by such offenders."
Police said all of the fires the teens are accused of starting involved barns, and no residential structures were damaged.
A community member overheard younger teens talking about the fires last week and contacted police, who immediately sought out the suspects, said Undersheriff Andrew Zinke.
Zinke said the teens could face further charges pending an investigation of additional fires, but as of Monday, the five barn fires they were linked to were "definitely" arson.
"When you have eight or nine barn fires within 60 days, that's suspicious in itself," he said.
Zinke said the teens entered the barns, which were stacked with very dry hay due to the summer's drought, and sparked the hay.
A number of the fires completely destroyed the barns, such as a July 24 blaze on the 9800 block of Lucas Road in Crystal Lake.
"There was no good reason for it," Zinke said, adding that one of the teens told investigators they started the fires out of boredom.
Police are confident there were no other suspects involved but said there are a number of similar fires that may have involved separate suspects.
While Gerdes and Wiegand were in custody Friday, sheriff's investigators contacted the Crystal Lake Police department because one of the fires was within the city limits. During an interview, Crystal Lake police linked the teens to a couch fire that was left out for trash removal on the 1300 block of Loch Lomond Drive on June 12 and a mattress fire that was also left out the same night on the 1400 block of Candlewood Drive.
Dziewior said Crystal Lake police have not had any contact with the teens in the past.
During the investigation, police concluded the teens opened five fire hydrants in a residential neighborhood on Bedford Drive and Sutherland Drive on the night of June 26, he said.
Dziewior said both furniture fires prompted a fire department response, and that the teens admitted their involvement in both fires and the hydrant tampering.
Neither teen has been charged in connection to those crimes, but Crystal Lake police are working with the state's attorney's office on pending charges.
The barn fires the teens are accused of setting were set on the 13900 block of Harmony Road in Marengo on June 29, on the 11800 block of Pleasant Valley Road in Lakewood on July 3, on the 13900 block of Pleasant Valley Road in Woodstock on July 10, on the 22500 block of River Road in Marengo on July 23 and on the 9800 block of Lucas Road in Crystal Lake on July 24.
A judge set both teen's bail at $50,000 and as of Monday, Wiegand remained in custody at the McHenry County jail. Gerdes posted the required $5,000 on Friday, according to a jail official.
Both teens are due in court Wednesday morning.