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Mother of suspects in Patrick Cudahy fire says sons were 'just being idiots' at barbecue

July 16, 2009

Two brothers suspected in the launching of a military flare that ignited the fire at the Patrick Cudahy meat plant on the Fourth of July weekend were having fun at a barbecue and "they were just being idiots," their mother said Thursday.

"They didn't know it was going to get this far," said a woman who identified herself as the mother of Kurtis Popp, 25, and Joshua Popp, 23.

Kurtis Popp was arrested Wednesday and was in the Milwaukee County Jail on Thursday night while the Milwaukee County district attorney's office determines charges in the case.

Joshua Popp is on inactive duty with the U.S. Marines, lives in California and is cooperating with authorities who are making arrangements to fly him back to Milwaukee, his mother said.

Authorities announced Thursday that an arrest had been made in the case and that a second suspect was being brought to Milwaukee County from out of state.

In an afternoon news conference at the Cudahy Police Department, Chief Thomas Poellot said the investigation into the fire led authorities to a residence in the 3600 block of E. Holmes Ave., from which a military illumination flare that started the fire is believed to have been fired.

Poellot said a pyrotechnics expert determined the flare was not of a commercial or consumer grade, and investigators do not believe the fire was intentionally set.

It would be illegal for a civilian to possess a military-grade flare, said Deputy District Attorney Kent Lovern, who was also at the news conference.

Joshua Popp has served two tours in Iraq and received the Purple Heart, a medal that hung from his mother's front door as she spoke with a reporter.

She said Kurtis Popp lives in Milwaukee, and the two had a party at her house the night of July 5 while she was not home.

She said she didn't learn they were involved in the incident until Wednesday night and said her sons intended no harm or damage.

The woman also said repeatedly that she was very distraught over the incident.

The blaze, which burned for about three days, caused more than $50 million in damage, forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents and idled most of the plant's 1,800 employees.

The woman's next-door neighbor, Nathan Bronson, 22, said about 10 people attended a barbecue in the Popps' backyard the night the five-alarm fire began. Bronson, a Marine reservist who did not attend the party, said he heard firecrackers and bottle rockets being shot from the yard throughout the night. Part of the Patrick Cudahy plant is visible from the Popps' backyard.

Bronson, who moved to the neighborhood in October and was evacuated the day after the fire began, said he has met Joshua Popp a few times and knows his parents well but does not know Kurtis Popp.

Bronson said the Popps' father told him a few days ago that detectives had stopped by the house to ask questions and had searched the home's garbage.

Detectives also spoke with Bronson, he said.

Kurtis Popp's attorney, Julius Kim, said he could not confirm whether Popp was directly involved in the incident but characterized the situation as "a terrible, terrible accident."

"There was no malicious intent," Kim said. "This was not an act of domestic terrorism. This wasn't a person who had a beef to pick with this plant."

Kurtis Popp is employed and attends school part time, but Kim said he did not want to reveal more personal information about his client.

"Kurtis and his family, they're all good people," Kim said. "They're good, hard-working people, longtime members of the community. . . .  They appreciate the gravity of what happened here, and that jobs have been lost and there's been a lot of property damage and lives were put in harm's way. . . . Certainly from their standpoint, they understand the seriousness of the situation and they feel horrible that it occurred, too."

Kim said he, prosecutors and law enforcement have discussed the charges that could be filed.

The fact that law enforcement officials do not believe the fire was intentionally set should affect the decision about charges, Kim said.

"In criminal law, we prosecute people and we punish people based upon a lot of times what their intent was and whether they were trying, in fact, to harm people," he said.

"When people do things that may have been absent-minded or foolish, it's a difficult decision as to what you do in those situations. This appears to be one of those situations."

Linda Spice contributed to this report.

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