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Blog note: On March 6th, many of us paid tribute to the memory of Assistant Chief Dennis Olson of the Monmouth, Illinois Fire Department, who died in the line of duty on that day in 1993. This blog raises many questions, may raise many dormant feelings, but it is done with the utmost respect for family, friends, community, fire department and most of all, Assistant Chief Dennis Olson.

Monmouth, Illinois is known as the “Maple City” in west central Illinois.

At 6:14 am on March 6, 1993, Assistant Chief Dennis Olson and the Monmouth Fire Department responded to a fire at Term City, a rent-to-own business located at 510 South Main Street in Monmouth.

As Chief Olson attempted to open a door, the building’s roof collapsed, causing the cinder-block wall to fall outward and onto Chief Olson; crushing and killing him.

An incident that was over in a matter of minutes changed the lives of a wife and daughter-now a widow and fatherless child-forever.

And we ask, “What is a person’s life/a firefighter’s life worth? What is a lifetime of that day’s painful memory worth?” Hold your answers; there’s more.

On THIS day, a well-respected and loved firefighter’s life was worth whatever Mark Skiles had stolen from the business to that point and a VCR that he had given to Jeramie Myers to set the fatal fire.

It would seem from reading the accounts of the day* that Skiles was a perpetual screw up. He couldn’t make money from his sales skills, so he had to resort to stealing merchandise and money from his employer. He attempted to set a fire to cover his thefts on March 5th-less than 24 hours before the fatal fire of March 6th-but failed to burn down the building. He enlisted an 18 year old “boy” to set the fire on March 6th, used a gasoline trail that led to the front door of the business and then bought the boy’s silence with a video cassette recorder (VCR). No; there aren’t enough laws to protect us from people that stupid.

Skiles was no doubt thinking that he had gotten away with the fire that he had set on March 5th when the initial cause came out as careless discarding of smoking materials. The fire had started behind some cardboard and wooden pallets on the west side of the building. Quick action by the fire department held the damage to about $50,000.

But, was this initial cause issued to set a trap or to quickly close out an investigation? Because, either way; it gave Skiles another opportunity. Who knew that it would come less than 24 hours later? Who among the fire-setters knew that the heat from the accelerant, the fuel from the furniture and the bow-string truss construction would be the booby trap that would set a fatal chain of events into place? It didn’t occur to them that they were committing a crime to cover a crime that led to yet, another and more serious crime; the crime of MURDER!

So; while the bereaved family, friends and community were paying their final farewells to Dennis; the two that were responsible for his death were walking the streets as free men for the moment. I would bet my paycheck that, at this point, they were more concerned about getting caught and going to jail than they were about killing a firefighter who went to work that day; just like any other day. Remorse was misplaced.

It took a little more than eight months-November 16, 1993-for Jeramie Myers to confess to setting the fatal fire. It took Mark Skiles until the next day-November 17, 1993-to confess to “paying” Myers to set the March 6th fire and he also confessed to starting the fire on March 5th to cover his thefts from the store.

 In March of 1995, Skiles was sentenced to 24 years in prison for the death of Assistant Chief Dennis Olson. Shortly thereafter, Myers was sentenced to 24 years in prison for aggravated arson. When you think of all of the crimes that were committed by these two, it is very apparent that plea bargaining was used; despite what appears to be overwhelming evidence.

I can’t begin to fathom or to process what Judy Olson; the widow was dealing with at this time.

I can tell you that I have communicated with her many times through the social medias and she lives not far from me.

I can tell you that she is an extraordinary and amazing woman. She is deeply spiritual. She is very caring and compassionate. She has been an outspoken advocate for firefighter safety. She has been a source of solace for others who have gone through a death in their family. She is a very intelligent lady and it is very clear that she cherished her time with her husband and has lived through his death on a spiritual level. That she can find strength from her experience to strengthen others met with similar circumstances is phenomenal.

But, I struggle sometimes to make sense of human-kind’s ability to move past a tragedy that is tried within a judicial system that seems to give little regard for the unintended consequences of someone’s careless/reckless behavior; the collateral damage that is caused to the families of a victim and this idea that if the criminal says that he “didn’t know that the gun was loaded when he pulled the trigger”; this is to somehow make the act more palatable? I don’t think so.

And it leaves me with questions like:

How deep do you have to go inward to find that place where you don’t hate, but you don’t forgive, either?

Is it somewhere between Anger and Sorrow?

Can you actually rationalize that the careless/reckless actions that caused a loved one’s death was committed without any thought that someone else might be injured or killed as a result of those actions, because I think that this is the key to finding inner peace at some point.

I want to believe that the value that a person has is somewhat measured by their service to family, friends, community and their God.

Certainly, if this were to be, then our judicial system would factor in these “mitigations”, regardless of whether the person charged with taking this life “meant to”; or is “sorry” or is “a good candidate for rehabilitation”.

There has to be real value placed upon a life that is taken.

There has to be real value placed upon the impact that crime has on family, friends and community.

And there has to be a real price paid by the criminal who would dare to take another person’s life; whether it is by pre-meditation or “by accident”.

Yes; many firefighters are willing to die in the service of their communities and judges must be willing to send firefighter killers away for the rest of their natural lives, in my humble opinion.

*Some information contained in this article is drawn on news accounts from the Monmouth Review Atlas written by Ron Fields.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author, Art Goodrich, who also writes under the name ChiefReason.  They do not reflect the views and opinions of, Fire Engineering Magazine, PennWell Corporation or his dog, Chopper. Articles written by the author are protected by federal copyright and cannot be reproduced in any form.

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