Career arsonist, ‘Backdraft Al,’ dies from overdose

Alan Theodore Enger, a notorious arsonist who terrorized Twin Cities’ neighborhoods over four decades, died two months ago from an accidental overdose of fentanyl and methamphetamines.  He was 57.

Known to arson investigators as ‘Backdraft Al,’ there were no published obituaries noting his passing and family members declined to comment.

Enger was found dead July 1 at a halfway house in St. Paul where he was receiving treatment for alcohol abuse.

Police found an empty baggie in his room that had contained a white powder along with a pipe.

Next to his bed, an unopened six pack of Special Export.  Underneath the bed, a full-size ax.

The cause of death was confirmed by the Ramsey County Medical Examiner.

A 40-year rap sheet

Enger began setting fires as a teenager in Northeast Minneapolis in the 1980s.

By the 1990s, the prolific pyromaniac was torching businesses along Central Avenue.

One man died from a heart attack while putting out an arson fire next door to where Enger lived most of his adult life with his late mother, who was often his alibi and enabler.

Enger was convicted of arsons in 1981, 1985, 2000, 2005, and 2019.

He was a suspect in many more.

According to police sources, he was a suspect in at least 73 arsons over the years, including a massive blaze that burned down several businesses and apartments at the corner of Central and Lowry in 2005.

But even Enger thought that estimate was low.

In an interview with the FOX 9 Investigators in 2019, Enger said he had set "quite a few" fires, likely "over a hundred."

He would often set fires as retaliation for perceived slights, almost always while on a drinking binge, he admitted.

During that 2019 interview, Enger was sober, friendly, and willing to talk.

90 days for a serial arsonist

The occasion for the interview was his latest arson and an extraordinary plea deal: 90-days in the county workhouse.

Even Enger was surprised.

"I thought I’d get a couple of years, if not three or four. When they offered me the 90 days I wasn’t going to fight it. No problem," Enger said at the time.

In May 2019, while he was staying at a halfway house in North Minneapolis, Enger had taken a burning log from a backyard fire and threw it into his housemate’s truck parked in the back alley.

According to a transcript of the sentencing six months later, the prosecutor who made the plea deal was unaware of Enger’s extensive arson history.

"You know, quite honestly I didn’t know Mr. Enger’s prolific arson history going into this," the assistant county attorney, Scott Haldeman, told Judge Martha Anne Holton Dimick.

"I didn’t realize he had all the previous arsons. I think 120 days is too low. I would never have offered that in the first place had I known that," Haldeman said at the hearing.

Most of Enger’s extensive rap sheep had vanished from the criminal history because of what’s known as a "felony decay factor," whereby only the last 15 years of the criminal history is considered relevant for sentencing.

With time served and good behavior, Enger was locked up for only 78 days.

Nearly a decade earlier, in 2005, then Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar, had charged Enger as a "career offender."

Prosecutors called him an "uncontrollable, serial arsonist," "a danger to public safety," adding that "nothing in the criminal justice system can protect society from Alan Enger other than to incarcerate him for as long as possible under the law."

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman defended the light sentence Enger received in 2019.

"I believe in redemption. And I believe people should have that opportunity. Frankly, we are surprised he committed the same kind of crime.  Maybe we shouldn’t be," Freeman said at the time.

In fact, sources familiar with Minnesota sentencing guidelines tell the FOX 9 Investigators Enger could’ve been prosecuted, once again, as a career offender, because the 2005 conviction fell within the 15-year time period, and it would’ve led to mandatory prison time.

But Freeman said the underlying criminal history would be outside that 15-year period. And, he reiterated at the time, the sentence fits a property crime.

"Every time we put a person in prison it cost $40,000 a year. And for this kind of crime, we felt some workhouse time and having the rest of it hang over his head was the proper sentence and the judge who makes the final decision agreed," Freeman said in 2019.