2020 house fire leads to arson, child neglect and insurance fraud charges for Scranton woman
By Brandon Hurley
A Scranton woman who allegedly lit her Wall Lake home on fire with her two-year old inside in an effort to commit insurance fraud has been charged with first degree arson for a second time.The fire occurred two years ago in Jan. of 2020 after Melissa Dopheide was informed via a court order she was being evicted. The blaze mysteriously arose on the day she, her son and her then live-in roommate, Andrew Wempe were legally required to vacate the premises.
Dopheide, 40, was arrested by a Greene County sheriff deputy at 7:56 a.m. Monday, May 2 at a building on Cedar Street in Scranton for a Sac County warrant, nearly two years after the criminal case was initially dismissed.
Dopheide was initially arrested on April 13, 2020 for first degree arson of the home she was renting at 124 Center Street in Wall Lake.
She originally pleaded not guilty to the string of charges in addition to the arson on May 26, 2020, accusations which included first degree theft, insurance fraud, first degree criminal mischief, three counts of perjury, forgery, neglect of a dependent and ongoing criminal conduct.
The case was dismissed on Sept. 8, 2020 following several months of litigation and testimonies as a result of the fire which was ignited on Jan. 9, 2020.
Dopheide’s criminal charges were reinforced this week after a two-year gap. Sac County attorney Ben Smith initially had hoped the case would be picked up by the U.S. Attorney's office, though the Federal government did not believe it met their criteria at the time. Then, the COVID pandemic ensued, creating a significant back log in the court system, delaying thousands of cases across Iowa. State laws allow for a case to be dismissed once and re-filed at a later date, which is what Smith decided to do this week.
"The case wasn't dismissed out of convenience," Smith said. "The federal government can't take a case if there's already state charges."
Court documents and law enforcement reports suggest Dopheide and Wempe conspired to set their home on fire in order to allegedly commit insurance fraud. Dopheide is once again being charged with the aforementioned crimes.
She was ordered by the court system to remove herself and all her possessions from the address in Wall Lake by Jan. 9, 2020. Erlene Frisbie, landlord of the Wall Lake residence in which Dopheide was residing in at the time, filed a criminal complaint in December of 2019 saying Dopheide owed $2,669.51 for two months of rent, half of the deposit, late fees and two months of utilities.
The Wall Lake home went up in flames the day the family of three was legally being evicted on Jan. 9, 2020.
Law enforcement responded to the house fire at 7 a.m. A Lake View Police officer was suspicious of the fire’s origins, choosing to call on the fire marshall. The ensuing investigation led to the discovery of a loosened furnace gas line, which officials then believe a lit candle was used to ignite the gas line. A Lake View Police Department complaint also accused Dopheide of moving all of her belongings to a detached garage the night prior to the fire on Jan. 8. Dopheide’s two-year-old son was also inside the home at the time of the fire, which led to the 2020 charge of neglect of a dependent.
Blaze may have ignited insurance fraud
The suspicious fire originally connected Dopheide to false insurance claims.
According to Sac County court documents, an insurance agency falsely granted Dopheide more than $50,000 after she claimed the home accidentally started on fire - rendering her belongings a total loss. Dopheide allegedly filed an insurance claim around Jan. 9, 20 for $56,569 for losses in the house fire. Court documents say Dopheide received $53,969.42 for her claim.
As a result, she was charged with first degree theft (deception), which is a Class C felony in 2020 after allegedly making the false claims knowing they were not true.
A GoFundMe page was started on Jan. 11, 2020 by Kelsey Dopheide asking for donations totaling $2,000 to help with losses incurred during the house fire.
The website has raised $1,670 as of May 3.
Dopheide is engaged to Wempe, according to a social media post. Wempe was a resident of the home in Wall Lake which was allegedly set on fire. He was charged with all the same criminal acts as Dopheide in 2020. He has not been charged this time around.
Dopheide's trial will remain a state case, though there is always a chance it can still go federal, Smith said.
She had previously lived in Breda after the fire before moving to Scranton. Court officials are unsure how long she has resided in Greene County.
Arraignment for Dopheide’s arson charge is set for 9 a.m. Monday, May 9 at the Sac County Courthouse.