Frederick Fegely, charged with murder and felony arson in an Ogden Dunes fire that took the life of his mother in 2015, prepared for life as a free man Friday after the charges against him were dismissed because the science behind the case didn’t add up.
“Fred is now ready to restart his life as a result of being freed today,” his attorney, Robert Harper, said during a Friday hearing before Porter Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Clymer, adding he has been convinced of Fegely’s innocence since he started working on the case and was gratified to know he would be released.
“It has been a long battle for him. As you know, he has not only spent the last few years in jail, but he was also confined for a time in the (Logansport) State Hospital, where he was examined for competency,” Harper continued, adding, “Our defense was simply, this fire was not arson.”
Porter County Prosecutor Gary Germann, just days into his term in office, said Ogden Dunes officials conducted “a cutting edge investigation in this extremely complicated and science driven arson case.”
“We’re very satisfied that at the very least, there is no way to pursue a successful prosecution of Mr. Fegely for felony murder,” Germann said in explaining why his office dropped the charges.
Fegely, 70, of Michigan City, faced the allegations after the April 16, 2015, fire in which Wanda Maxine Wunder, 94, died.
While the basement of Wunder’s home was identified as an area of origin for the fire, Germann said, the cause of the fire has not and cannot be established, and a chemical analysis showed no evidence of an accelerant at the site of the fire or on Fegely’s clothing.
He also dismissed a theory that there was a second area of origin of the fire on the home’s first floor.
“I’m satisfied that this is just not factually accurate, just to name a few of the important facts suggesting this was a fire that was not started intentionally,” Germann said.
Germann also credited the work of Harper, Fegely’s public defender, for the time he spent on the case, as well as the court’s authorization to provide “a substantial amount of money” for Harper to hire the experts necessary for Fegely’s defense.
“Without the money and the experts, I’m satisfied if this case had gone to trial, there was a real risk the defendant would have been convicted in a case where he was actually innocent,” Germann said, adding the case represented a great personal victory for Fegely and the county’s criminal justice system.
“My hope is the public will see this as a victory for them as well, because I want this case to serve as notice to everyone here that beginning Jan. 1, the Porter County Prosecutor’s Office will no longer be prosecuting the innocent,” he said.
Fegely, dressed in a black and white jail jumpsuit, orange jacket and rubber shoes, and with chains around his ankles and wrists, fiddled with a sheet of folded notebook paper before his case was called up.
He briefly addressed the court during the hearing.
“I’d like to thank you, your honor, for appropriating the money to have the tests done on my clothing,” he said. “I know it was a substantial amount of money and I’m grateful.”
Ogden Dunes officials who investigated the case said after the hearing that the dismissal was appropriate.
“We knew from the beginning this case was built strictly on the science and when the science fell apart, the case fell apart for us, and we support (Germann’s) dismissal,” said Police Chief Jim Reeder.
Fire Chief Eric Kurtz agreed.
“I think our criminal defense system is based on proof without a doubt and without the lab science to support the case, it was difficult to prove,” he said.
During an August court hearing before Clymer, Fegely withdrew a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity in the case, telling the judge he was afraid it made him look like he did the crime and was looking for a way out.
Fegely was charged in the case on Jan. 6, 2016, and has been in custody ever since, including the time he spent at the state hospital.
Harper argued during a mid-November court hearing that one of the state’s witnesses against Fegely had been discredited and the case against his client should be dismissed. He said then his client should be released on bond until a determination could be made on whether to move forward with the charges.
Action on the case was postponed until this month when Germann took over as county prosecutor.
Amy Lavalley is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.