State v. Krouse, 29711-a-PJD

CourtSupreme Court of South Dakota
Writing for the CourtDEVANEY, JUSTICE
PartiesSTATE OF SOUTH DAKOTA, Plaintiff and Appellee, v. JACQUELINE KROUSE, Defendant and Appellant.
Docket Number29711-a-PJD
Decision Date31 August 2022

2022 S.D. 54

STATE OF SOUTH DAKOTA, Plaintiff and Appellee,
v.

JACQUELINE KROUSE, Defendant and Appellant.

No. 29711-a-PJD

Supreme Court of South Dakota

August 31, 2022


ARGUED APRIL 27, 2022

APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE SECOND JUDICIAL CIRCUIT LINCOLN COUNTY, SOUTH DAKOTA THE HONORABLE JEROME A. ECKRICH III Retired Judge

SHAWN M. NICHOLS CLAIRE E. WILKA of Cadwell, Sanford, Deibert & Garry, LLP Sioux Falls, South Dakota Attorneys for defendant and appellant.

MARK VARGO Attorney General STEPHEN G. GEMAR Assistant Attorney General Pierre, South Dakota Attorneys for plaintiff and appellee.

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OPINION

DEVANEY, JUSTICE

[¶1.] The defendant appeals her conviction, following a bench trial, of second-degree arson arising from a fire that occurred in her home for which she made a claim to her insurance company for damages and losses. The defendant asserts that this Court's review is confined to the circuit court's findings of fact; that the circuit court erred in denying her motion for judgment of acquittal; and that she was denied her fundamental right to due process and a fair trial. We affirm.

Factual and Procedural Background

[¶2.] On March 13, 2019, at approximately 11:00 p.m., Sioux Falls Fire and Rescue personnel responded to a 911 call reporting a home fire. Firefighters extinguished the fire; however, before being suppressed, the fire burned basement walls and continued upward, burning the dining room floor and causing significant smoke damage throughout several portions of the home. Sioux Falls Fire and Rescue Investigator Tyler Tjeerdsma, who was assigned to investigate the cause of the fire, arrived shortly after fire suppression efforts began and collected information from the firefighters on the scene. He also spoke with the owner of the home, Jacqueline Krouse, and her boyfriend, Steven Veenhof, who was present during the fire. Krouse told Tjeerdsma that she was having problems with a fireplace in the basement and that a breaker kept tripping. She claimed that she went in and out of the mechanical room where the breaker panel was located, and roughly five minutes after one of her trips into the room, she noticed a small fire on the floor. She told Tjeerdsma that she left the room to get a towel, wet it down, and

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return to the room, but by the time she got back, the fire was too big to put out, so she went upstairs to call 911.

[¶3.] After examining the evidence and collecting information, Tjeerdsma determined that the fire started in the mechanical room in the basement. He traced the point of origin to the east wall of the mechanical room by some charred cardboard boxes. However, he could not determine the cause of the fire. He wrote in his report that "[w]ithout the benefit of additional evidence or information the specific cause of the fire will remain undetermined." He further wrote that his analysis of the evidence and information "was sufficient to support that the fire was the result of an unintentional act" and that "no evidence or information was discovered that would support any deliberate act which would have caused this fire."

[¶4.] The day after the fire, Krouse submitted a claim to her insurer, State Farm Insurance Company, seeking to recover for the damage to her home. Prior to the fire, Krouse's home was valued at over $1 million. At the time of the fire, she was self-employed as an artist and received $21,000 a month in alimony from her ex-husband. She was the only person living in the home full time. Krouse claimed that it was her plan to keep the home until her children graduated from high school, and with her son nearing graduation, she had started to prepare the home to be listed for sale.

[¶5.] State Farm assigned claim representative Myra Olson to Krouse's insurance claim. Olson met with Krouse and Veenhof the same day Krouse submitted her claim. Olson testified that during the meeting, Krouse mentioned

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that she had previously worked with Olson at State Farm approximately a year ago when Krouse worked as a State Farm insurance agent. Olson further testified that Krouse told her that her mother and sister work for State Farm and that her mother works in management of fire claims.

[¶6.] During the meeting, Krouse related to Olson a version of events leading up to the fire that differed in some respects from the version she provided to Tjeerdsma. Krouse told Olson that on the evening of March 13, she and Veenhof had gotten into an argument, after which she went to the basement. Krouse explained that she walked into a theater room in the basement to inspect a recently completed paint job. Krouse stated that she noticed about an inch of water on the floor in the theater room and smelled smoke, then followed the smell, and noticed smoke coming out of the mechanical room. She told Olson that when she opened the door, she saw a small fire on the concrete floor. She also told Olson "she had done something with the fireplace that then caused her to go and attempt to flip a breaker . . . just prior to the fire."

[¶7.] Olson also conducted a walk-through of the home. She testified that there were several "red flags" based on her observations of the overall condition of the home. In particular, the furniture in the upstairs living room had been pushed to the middle of the room, there were no photos or paintings on any of the walls, everything had been taken off the bookshelves, multiple areas of the home needed repairs, the carpet had been pulled up in a bedroom downstairs and piled in the center of the room, the staircase to the basement was half painted, and certain personal items such as Krouse's purse, laptop, and contacts were in her vehicle on

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the evening of the fire. Because Olson could not determine the cause of the fire, she informed Krouse that she would be recommending that State Farm hire a fire investigator to attempt to determine how the fire started.[1]

[¶8.] State Farm hired Jeff Blomseth to investigate the cause of the fire, and on March 19, Blomseth met with Krouse at the residence. During the interview, Blomseth obtained preliminary information from Krouse regarding what she saw and what happened the night of the fire and whether any issues may have existed in the home such as lighting issues, renovations being made, etc. Krouse's explanation to Blomseth about discovering water in the theater room and then smelling smoke was similar to the version she provided to Olson. Krouse told Blomseth that when she discovered a small fire in a pile of debris on the mechanical room floor, she tried to "move the pile with her foot, a little[,]" and observed small flames within the debris. She explained that she then went to the bathroom adjacent to the mechanical room to wet a towel to put on the fire and called for Veenhof.

[¶9.] During Blomseth's physical investigation of the origin and cause of the fire, he examined the charred debris pile in the mechanical room layer by layer to evaluate what was in there and to determine whether there was a "competent

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ignition source" for the fire. His examination revealed "a canvas-type drop cloth material[,]" "charred pieces of cardboard[,]" "[s]ome furnace filter-type materials[,]" and "[a] lot of, just, things that [he would] term 'ordinary combustibles,' papers, that type of things."

[¶10.] Krouse told Blomseth that seven to ten days prior to the fire, she had placed various items of garbage in the area where the debris pile was located, including towel-type materials, an old box of stick matches, latex and acrylic artist paint, and some rags from painting and staining projects completed approximately five weeks prior to the fire. Neither Tjeersdma nor Blomseth located stain rags in the mechanical room, but Blomseth opined that even if such rags had been present, neither stain rags nor anything of that nature caused the fire. He explained that based on his experience and training, staining approximately five weeks prior to the fire and putting the rags in a pile seven to ten days before the fire would not be consistent with a theory that the rags started the fire.

[¶11.] While Blomseth acknowledged that the stain rags "are capable of self- heating[,]" he explained that these types of fires are "extremely dirty fires" that "will smoke for a long period of time" before producing flames. He further explained that because the pile was on a concrete floor, the floor "would act like a heat sink and would be drawing any heat that it's trying to build up, and it would be dissipating that as it's trying to build it."

[¶12.] Blomseth concluded based on his initial investigation that the fire was not accidental; however, he testified that he did not know who started the fire. Consequently, he went back to the home on April 1, with an electrical engineer, Dan

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Choudek, to further investigate the cause of the fire. Choudek testified that his role involves examining a building's electrical systems to help determine where a fire started. After obtaining background information from Blomseth and conducting his own investigation at the scene, it was clear to Choudek that the fire started in the mechanical room and that there was not an electrical cause for the fire.

[¶13.] Blomseth interviewed Krouse a second time and asked her to once again explain what she had been doing when the fire started. During this subsequent interview, Krouse told him that he should "just look at the video camera because that would record everything." Blomseth then had Choudek collect the video recording from the in-home security system with Krouse's permission.

[¶14.] After considering this additional information, Blomseth maintained his opinion that the fire was nonaccidental. He testified that it was an incendiary fire, one that occurred under circumstances "when there shouldn't have been a fire." After reviewing the video footage, he concluded that the fire was caused by...

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