Arson: the willful or malicious burning of property, such as a
building, especially with criminal or fraudulent intent. – Merriam Webster Dictionary
It’s painfully clear that the state Department of Investigation
should have placed a call to Sam Spade 25 years ago.
The DCI never solved this puzzling case of arson, which took
down the old Taft Hotel in Chamberlain on Aug. 18, 1990.
Burned beyond recognition, the Taft as an Army facility
survived racial tensions, a transport on rolling logs from
Pukwana to Chamberlain, and nearly 100 years of all sorts of
travelers, from elixir salesmen to tourists from New Jersey.
But a malicious arsonist ended the Taft’s long and colorful run.
On second thought, the case may have been too challenging
for Spade. The DCI should have contacted Hercule Poirot.
Today, even with the advantage of hindsight, it’s impossible to
say what was needed to solve the case, primarily because the hindsight is
How the investigation was conducted, who was interviewed,
what investigatory methods were used – none of it is open for review.
Think of it. A quarter century after one of the state’s most extraordinary
fires – and crimes – the steps taken to clear the case remain secret.
More than 40 years ago when I was starting out in the newspaper field, a
wizened and somewhat cynical editor took me aside and offered this advice:
“Don’t be taken in by politicians or others in power. Most of them love
to operate in secret. They like the dark. .. and keeping your readers in it.”
I never bought into that idea. Over the years, my experience was
that most public servants were simply trying to do the best job they
could. There are some bad apples in every barrel, but I don’t know that
the percentage is any higher in government than in private business.
The problem at hand is that state law is too restrictive. This
case is 25 years old. Whoever committed the crime is in no
danger of prosecution since there is a 7-year statute of limitations.
The persons named in the file are protected by libel law from
being placed in a bad light by a reporter writing a story.
One answer is for the present law to be revised to allow a court
to open certain files for examination when it seems in the public
interest. A judge can’t do that now because of how the law is
written. This change would address the secrecy that sometimes is
unreasonable, damaging, and contrary to open government.
Aug. 19, 2015