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Woman, who blamed ex-lover of setting fires at her home, convicted for arson

MOORHEAD - Tara Andvik quietly sobbed as guilty verdicts on three felony counts of arson were read by a Clay County jury Tuesday.

Her husband, Matt Andvik, also welled up, sitting directly behind her when the verdict was read about 9:30 p.m.

The jury reached its decision after about four hours of deliberation.

Andvik, dressed in a bright pink sweater, was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs after Judge Michael Kirk ordered her bail revoked and that she be placed in the custody of the Clay County Jail.

A sentencing hearing will be held June 28.

Prosecutor Heidi Davies requested a mental health evaluation of Andvik, which was granted as part of a presentencing investigation.

Outside the courtroom, defense attorney Steven Mottinger said Andvik was disappointed with the verdict.

"This is a tough day for everybody involved. Her family has stood behind her. I don't know at this point there is any reason to expect any change in that regard," he said.

Mottinger did not fight the mental health evaluation, saying there were indications from some of the witnesses "that there may be some issues there."

Jury foreman Paul Sando declined to comment on the specifics of the jury's deliberations but said reaching the verdicts was "emotionally draining."

"It certainly was a difficult decision," he said.

Mottinger said it was too early to say if his client would appeal the verdicts.

In his closing arguments, Mottinger said the letters Andvik sent to herself and others from a supposed hit man hired to kill her posed "a big problem for us."

"We're not going to deny it," Mottinger told the jury of eight women and four men before they began deliberating just after 5 p.m. "We certainly wish we didn't have to deal with them."

But he did offer an explanation for the letters sent last month: They weren't a last-ditch effort to steer blame for the six fires at Andvik's rural Barnesville farmstead toward her ex-lover, Keith Beam, but rather the desperate action of someone who had been "hounded" as the only possible suspect in the fires since the farm's barn mysteriously burned Oct. 12.

"Isn't it just as reasonable that she gets close to trial, gets scared and decides, 'I've got to do something to help myself out?' " Mottinger said.

Davies questioned why, if Beam or someone else had hired a hit man to kill Andvik, the hit man would have set grass fires on the farmstead and torched the barn before setting the final Oct. 19 deck fire that severely damaged the house.

"That hit man story does not hold water, but it's one that she revisited time and time against with the investigators," said Davies, an assistant Clay County attorney.

Focus on fake letters

Andvik's ex-boyfriend testified Tuesday morning that the rural Barnesville woman asked him to mail three letters, but he didn't know that they were supposedly from someone hired to kill her.

Jerren Ancira, a rancher with a long handlebar mustache from rural Auburn, Wyo., said he met Andvik in Texas in 2001 and they dated for about six months before he moved away. They have kept in touch since then, he said.

Late last winter or early this spring, Andvik, who was charged in November with three counts of first-degree arson, asked Ancira to do a favor and mail some letters for her, he said.

Ancira said he received the letters in a manila envelope on April 3 and dropped them in the mail in Auburn the same day. He didn't look at who the letters were addressed to, and he thought they were being sent to someone's wife or ex-wife about an affair, he said.

"I thought the letters were something different than what they were," he said.

The anonymous handwritten letters were received by Andvik, Mottinger and a Forum reporter.

The letter to Andvik stated, "He is going to kill you Tara."

The other two letters were identical, stating that Beam, a TV producer from Wisconsin who had an affair with Andvik last year that ended before the October fires, hired the letter writer for $50,000 to make Andvik disappear but reneged when she didn't.

In a police interview, Andvik, 34, said she believed the "he" in the letter she received referred to Beam. He testified last week that he had nothing to do with the fires.

When authorities contacted Ancira about the letters, he said he initially denied sending them because he didn't want to get in trouble. Afterward, he went on the Internet and learned about the nature of the letters, which by that time had made the news.

"I was surprised," he said, saying he felt Andvik hadn't been truthful.

Ancira said he called the Clay County attorney's office two weeks ago and was assured he wouldn't get in trouble for sending the letters. He said he talked to Andvik by phone on April 13 but couldn't remember if they discussed the letters.

Shawn Gallagher, a forensic scientist and handwriting analyst with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, said he was unable to determine whether Andvik had written the letters because of differences in capital and lowercase characters between the letters and a handwriting sample from Andvik. Identifying the writer was also difficult because the writings had unnatural characteristics, including blunt endings, pen lifts, hesitation and retouching.

"So whoever wrote them was disguising their handwriting?" Davies asked.

"That's what it appears to me," Gallagher said.

Outside the courthouse, Davies said the letters were an "incredible find" by Clay County Detective Jason Hicks.

When informed of the guilty verdicts at his home in New Glarus, Wis., Beam's immediate reaction was "overwhelming thankfulness for the American justice system."

"This is justice," he said, also thanking law enforcement involved in the case during a phone interview Tuesday night.

Beam also apologized to his soon-to-be ex-wife, family, friends and others affected by the situation. He said he received an outpouring of support from people within the hunting industry in response to Andvik's accusations.

"I apologize for getting myself into this situation," he said. "What I did was a sin, was morally wrong and unethical, but I never did anything illegal, nor would I."

Asked what punishment he believes Andvik should receive, Beam said, "I'm leaving that up to the people that have that kind of education."

Common thread in fires

Deputy State Fire Marshal Andrea Wenzlaff said there was a common thread in the six fires at the farmstead.

Andvik was the only person in the vicinity when all six fires were reported, and they all appeared to be designed to be easy to control and do minimal damage, with the exception of the Oct. 12 barn fire.

Wenzlaff noticed the barn fire while interviewing Andvik's husband, Matt Andvik, in the kitchen on the morning of the deck fire. It was the first time in the fire marshal office's history that an arson fire had started when a marshal was already on scene, she said.

Mottinger used Wenzlaff's timeline and testimony from Matt Andvik - the lone defense witness - to try to convince the jury that Tara Andvik was sleeping and didn't have time to sneak out the bedroom's outside door on the opposite side of the house, traverse the farmyard and set the barn ablaze.

"I don't think it's possible," Matt Andvik said.

The final deck fire that spread to the house originated in a plastic, igloo-style doghouse that burned fast and hot, which someone inexperienced with fires might not expect, Wenzlaff said.

Davies suggested Tara Andvik lit the fire but

didn't mean to set the house ablaze, citing her 911 call in which she started out speaking fairly calmly but then cried, "No, no, no!"

'Revenge and attention'

Tara Andvik was the only one home when that fire broke out, but her husband and two young children also were home when the Oct. 12 deck fire occurred.

"Who would start a fire with their kids in the house? It doesn't make any sense," Mottinger said.

Davies played off the question in her rebuttal, asking jurors who would send a death-threat letter to herself, her attorney and The Forum.

"She would," she said, referring to Andvik. "She had an agenda."