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.
Then, on Dec. 19, 2012, Scharber was called to the fire house, where investigators from the multi-agency task force were waiting to interrogate him. The meeting lasted almost five hours, and Scharber initially identified other firefighters as possible suspects.
But when investigators revealed that he was their primary target, Scharber confessed to not just being out at Mattila’s fishing resort, but also to setting nine fires.
Scharber was charged with setting fire to federal land and attempted arson. He took himself to a psychologist, who initially diagnosed him with pyromania, but later revised that diagnosis.
“It was diagnosed as a temporary adjustment disorder which can last, in this case, up to a year,” Scharber said.
“It's considered a short-term mental illness brought on by acute stress,” Stefanie Scharber said.
The acute stress that triggered his disorder, Ryan Scharber said, was the stress brought on by his newborn son Ayden’s constant crying.
"It was a legitimate way for me to get away for a couple hours without saying, ‘Hey Steph, I’m gonna go hang out with the guys and have some beers,'” Ryan Scharber said. “I was always solving everybody else's problems. I didn’t realize that I needed a little bit of help, myself, at the time.”
Scharber pleaded guilty, and, as part of a minimum mandatory sentence, received five years in a federal prison. While he admitted to starting nine fires, Assistant U.S. Attorney Dunne wondered if he may have started many more.
“From 2010 to 2012, there were 39 suspicious fires in Babbitt, Minn.,” Dunne said. “Since the time he was caught, there have been zero.”
Even though no one was hurt and no structures were damaged in the fires that Scharber confessed to, Dunne believed the sentence was fair.
“He was the chief of the Babbitt Volunteer Fire Department, and he lit multiple fires in the community that he was sworn to serve and protect,” Dunne said.
“That's an egregious breach of the public trust.”