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Owners of Bird Island home destroyed by fire now face charges

Jeffery George Ackerson, Jr., and Sheena Marie Ackerson are facing charges related to the fire that destroyed their home in Bird Island on Jan. 15. Photo submitted by Renville County Sheriff's Department

OLIVIA, Minn.—The owners of a Bird Island home destroyed by fire in January have now been charged in connection with that fire.

Jeffrey George Ackerson Jr., 34, is facing felony charges of arson, insurance fraud and cruelty to animals, while his wife, Sheena Marie Ackerson, 36, has been charged with one felony count of aiding and abetting insurance fraud.

The home was deemed a complete loss, and the family dog was killed in the fire on Jan. 15. The couple received two checks from American Family Insurance for $5,000 each, along with temporary housing in Hector, paid for by the insurance company, court documents said. The couple both endorsed and deposited the checks, documents said.

In a recorded statement to law enforcement on Feb. 8, Ackerson Jr. said he was frustrated with the progress of remodeling the house, along with the family bills. When his wife and children had left the house Jan. 15, he said he went into the garage/workshop area of the home, lit a cigarette using a hand torch and then threw the hand torch down, still in the "on" position, which he said caused the fire.

He then went to Sheena Ackerson's parents' home, where she had gone to take a shower before work. He told her that "it was done, the house was on fire," court documents said.

Sheena Ackerson told investigators that at first she didn't believe her husband, but that when her father called to tell her the house was on fire, she then believed her husband had intentionally set the house on fire, court documents said.

Court documents said Sheena Ackerson gave three recorded statements to investigators in January and February, but consistently withheld that her husband had told her he had set the fire. She later said she did this knowingly to prevent her husband from becoming a suspect. She also said her husband made comments about burning the house down due to the bills, debts and condition of the home several times.

According to court documents, the Ackersons purchased the home in Bird Island in 2003 and were in the process of remodeling it. Court documents said the project was over-budget and was not on schedule.

Ackerson Jr.'s credit report from January, 2018, shows him to be in debt, with most of the accounts shown as delinquent. The mortgage from the home also was delinquent in payment.

In the fall of 2016, he raised the insurance value of the home to $595,750 based on what the house could have been worth after all the renovations were complete. He then lowered the value of the home to $354,000 due to the increased insurance premiums.

Ackerson Jr. allegedly told his insurance agent in 2017 that he had received training as a firefighter in how to burn down a home without getting caught, court documents said. He also allegedly said a sign of arson is when the family pets are removed from the home before the fire. When Renville County sheriff's deputies arrived on the scene of the fire in January, Ackerson Jr. told them that the family dog was in the house. The dog was later found deceased due to fire and smoke.

The insurance agent also told law enforcement that Ackerson Jr. had made a comment that "maybe he should just burn it down" in regard to the home during an angry conversation.

An arraignment on the charges was initially scheduled for Wednesday, April 25, and written notifications were sent April 12 to both Ackerson Jr. and Sheena Ackerson, using a Hector address, notifying them of the court date. However, those notifications were returned to sender on April 20, court documents showed. A second notification has been sent to both, this time using a Bird Island address, ordering they appear May 21 for their first court appearance.