The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

April 3, 2014

Cause of car fire linked to developer a mystery

RYAN J. FOLEY Associated Press
The Clinton Herald

---- — IOWA CITY — The cause of a fire that destroyed the car in which a prominent Iowa developer was found dead days after leaving prison remains a mystery, an investigator said Wednesday.

Agents with the Iowa Fire Marshal’s Office have found no real evidence in the burned-out Honda Accord where Bobby Joe Knapp’s body was discovered Sunday in rural western Iowa, said Special Agent in Charge Ron Humphrey. By the time investigators arrived, the fire had long burnt out and left the 1994 Honda Accord a scorched shell, with the glass gone and some of the metals burned off.

Authorities are looking into what caused Knapp’s death and the fire that consumed the vehicle, where Knapp’s body was in the backseat.

Knapp left a federal prison in Minnesota on March 25 after serving about 2½ years for environmental violations related to a conspiracy to mishandle the removal of asbestos during a renovation of the landmark Equitable Building in downtown Des Moines. He borrowed a friend’s car the next morning, saying he was going to check in with his parole officer in Des Moines. Knapp never returned, and his disappearance set off searches by local, state and federal authorities before a farmer checking his land found the vehicle and body.

Police have said Knapp told his parole officer that he was planning to harm himself. His friend, Neil Henderson, said Knapp remained bitter about the prosecution that sent him to prison and confused about how he would make a living now.

Humphrey confirmed that investigators are looking into whether Knapp had any involvement in the massive fire early Saturday that destroyed the historic Younkers building in downtown Des Moines, which was undergoing a $36 million renovation a block from the Equitable Building.

“We are looking into that to either rule him out or prove that he did do it. At this point, we have no concrete evidence one way or the other,” he said. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out he had connections to the downtown area.”

A spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which is investigating the Younkers fire along with the Des Moines Fire Department, refused to say Wednesday whether investigators were looking into Knapp. The cause of that fire, which caused the building to partially collapse, also remains unclear.

Henderson dismissed speculation about Knapp’s involvement in the Younkers fire, saying those suggestions were “pretty cruel” and Knapp may have already been dead by then.

The state medical examiner is awaiting the results of tests on Knapp’s blood for alcohol, drugs and other substances before ruling on the cause of death. Investigators have said that Knapp’s body didn’t have gunshot wounds.

Humphrey said investigators believe it’s possible the fire started accidentally if Knapp left the car running since it was in a timber area on top of dried leaves. Preliminary testing indicates Knapp didn’t die of carbon monoxide poisoning because the levels in his blood were not lethal, he said.

The fire also could have been started by Knapp or someone else inside the car, Humphrey said, but investigators found no lighter or matches.

While further testing of debris recovered from the scene is underway, Humphrey said it’s possible a definitive cause will never be known. Fires in vehicles can be difficult to investigate since they are filled with flammable liquids, he said.