MOORHEAD-A couple of hours before a fire at a south Moorhead house where a body who was not the owner was found among the charred remains, a neighbor working in his yard noticed a woman sitting on the home’s front steps.
Bryan Bishop said the woman was on her phone cursing loudly at the person on the other end.
“She was in a heated discussion,” Bishop said Wednesday, June 29, the morning after the fire.
As Bishop stood in his yard Wednesday, police and other officials went in and out of the fire-damaged home at 1019 11th Ave. S., continuing to investigate a fire and a death they consider suspicious.
Officials were trying to determine what caused the fire, which was reported about 4:30 p.m. Tuesday. The death is also being investigated as suspicious, though Moorhead police Lt. Tory Jacobson said few details are being released because the investigation is ongoing.
It’s unclear what the woman’s heated phone discussion was about, but police dispatch logs show officers were called to a home in that same block at about 2:30 p.m. Tuesday on a report of an unwanted man. It took them 35 minutes on scene to resolve the situation.
Jacobson confirmed Wednesday that a person was removed from the property, but he would not say if it was a male or a female.
The owner of the home is David Farden, 67, a retired professor of electrical engineering at North Dakota State University.
Jacobson said police have been in touch with Farden since the fire, but he declined to say where Farden was when he talked to investigators.
Reached by phone Wednesday afternoon, Farden allowed a woman who identified herself as Annie Russell, Farden’s fiance, to do most of the talking during a short conversation.
Russell said they were on the road and in the process of moving to Michigan, which is what several neighbors said they had heard.
Russell said the news that their home had been heavily damaged and that a body had been found inside was crushing.
“It is shocking,” she said, adding that they had only recently repaired most of the damage caused by an earlier fire at the house several years ago.
She said a couple have been house-sitting their home while Russell and Farden were traveling, but she did not share their names.
Russell said they heard Tuesday night from the male who was watching their house, and he told her he had not heard from his partner since he left for his job Tuesday morning.
Russell said an investigator contacted her and Farden after Tuesday’s fire, but she said they had learned little about what had happened.
Jacobson said Wednesday morning that agents with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the Minnesota State Fire Marshal’s Office are processing the scene and the Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s Office is working to positively identify the body. Jacobson said when firefighters were fighting the blaze they didn’t immediately find anyone in the house, but a subsequent search through heavy debris revealed the body.
Police haven’t named Farden or anyone else as a suspect in the case.
Court records paint a tumultuous picture of Farden's life in recent years.
Starting in 2009, the Clay County Department of Social Services tried three times to have him civilly committed because of mental illness. The first two attempts were dismissed, and the third one, filed in 2011, resulted in a commitment that was later stayed, records show.
In 2010, Farden was supposed to be on medications for bipolar disorder, and taking those medications was a requirement for him to keep his professor job at NDSU, according to Cass County District Court documents.
During a conversation with a school official that year, Farden said that if he was told to take his medications, he would use a gun to shoot the university's dean and provost, the documents stated. In that case, Farden was charged with felony terrorizing and eventually pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of misdemeanor disorderly conduct, according to court records.
Although Bishop knew Wednesday morning that a fire had heavily damaged the neighboring home, he had only just heard that a body was found inside the home. He and other neighbors said they were saddened but not surprised by Tuesday’s fire.
Betty Myers, a retired school principal who lives a couple of houses down from where the fire occurred, said the neighborhood is tight-knit and has the best block parties in town. But she said residents of the house that burned kept to themselves, and that unfamiliar faces and cars were frequently seen coming and going from the residence.
Myers and her husband, David, a retired Minnesota State University Moorhead instructor, said many in the neighborhood are people who have worked in the academic community, as Farden did.
David Myers said Farden appeared to be in ill health for some time and once asked Myers to drive him places because Farden said he was legally blind.
“Everybody has been concerned about him,” Betty Myers said.
The Myers and Bishop said Farden at one time had issues with collecting cars and large appliances in his backyard and elsewhere.
“The driveway was full of stuff,” Bishop said.
After Tuesday’s fire, Bishop shared with police what he knew about the woman he had seen on the phone. He said officers showed up while she was still yelling on her phone.
“I heard her say, ‘Now the cops are here,’ ’’ Bishop said, describing the woman as white and in her 50s or 60s, with light-colored hair.
He said an officer showed him a photo of a woman, and he told the officer it appeared to be the same woman he saw sitting on the front steps of the home that burned.