An ex-fire chief who pleaded guilty to setting fire to federal land and attempted arson in his Minnesota community says that, contrary to a psychologist’s previous diagnosis, he isn’t a pyromaniac.
“I think that was an initial assessment of a possible few different things,” Ryan Scharber told "20/20" co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas. “After several months of going to therapy, it became more clear that me getting excited and me wanting to light fires wasn't an issue.”
When an unprecedented number of suspicious fires were set in Babbitt, Minn., between 2010 and 2012, no one ever suspected it might actually be the town’s fire chief who set them.
Within three years of joining the Babbitt volunteer fire department, Scharber became the fire chief. Between his full-time job at a local mine and the long hours at the fire department, Scharber was often away from home just as his family was expanding. He and his wife, Stefanie Scharber, welcomed their first son, Miles, in 2009. Two years later, another son, Ayden, followed. But Ayden’s birth brought with it some unexpected stress at home.
"We noticed he was crying a lot more than usual, and then it turned into like non-stop screaming day and night,” Stefanie Scharber told “20/20.” “We kept bringing him back to the doctor, saying, ‘Hey, we think something's wrong,’ and they kept telling us, ‘It's colic,’ or, you know, ‘Oh, he'll grow out of it.’"
“It was pretty hard for me, you know, as a dad to not be able [to] make your kid feel better,” Ryan Scharber said.
Around the same time, Ryan Scharber’s work life was getting busier because of the rise in suspicious fires. Many of them occurred on federal land. No one was injured in the fires, but because of unusually dry conditions in Minnesota at the time, federal agents were taking them seriously.
“A joint task force between federal agencies, state agencies and local law enforcement commenced a joint investigation into those suspicious fires,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Dunne told “20/20.”
One of the first responders who fought those fires and investigated the suspicious circumstances was Ryan Scharber. He even went on the local news to say he and his crew were looking for an arsonist on the loose.
“We were watching, you know, trying to figure out what was going on,” Ryan Scharber said.
As months dragged on with no leads, investigators developed a theory that the fire-starter could actually be a firefighter. While it may seem unlikely, some estimates say that as many as 100 firefighters are arrested every year for arson.
Investigators in Babbitt eventually turned their attention to Fire Chief Scharber after an unusual December night at a fishing resort owned by Don Mattila.
That night, Mattila noticed a car driving onto his desolate property. When he went to investigate, he discovered Scharber, who told him he was just there to urinate.
Mattila asked Scharber to leave, then followed tracks in the snow behind a shed where he discovered a half-full can of gas. Mattila called the police.
The tip from Mattila led investigators from state and local agencies to zero in on Scharber, and they began tracking his every move. They secretly installed surveillance cameras in various locations, obtained cellphone records, and put a GPS tracking device on his vehicle.