Two houses, two fires – Family members charged with arson for each one

by Ian Johanson
for The Beacon

The fire that destroyed the Schwarten house in 2020. – Beacon file photo

A brother and sister, each 17 years old, are currently being held at the Sheboygan County Detention Center. She is accused of intentionally starting the fire that destroyed her family’s home in July of 2020. He is charged with intentionally starting a fire in the family’s rebuilt home at the same location 19 months later. This time, the house survived. 

At 12:49 p.m. on July 24, 2020, police were dispatched to the Schwarten household at N6192 Riverview Road, in the Town of Plymouth and found the house nearly fully engulfed, “as the flames were at the front of the residence and over the roof,” according to a criminal complaint.

Police made contact with a woman who owned the home, who told police she had just returned home, to find three of her sons outside the residence with the home on fire. The sons had been upstairs cleaning when they heard a smoke alarm and found an attached shed on fire, she told police.

Another of the children, Emily D. Schwarten, then just 15, and now facing felony arson and recklessly endangering safety charges, told police at the time that she had brought her guitar home, laid on her bed for a few minutes, and then returned to her sister’s house, where her brothers arrived to pound on the door and say the other house was on fire.

A detective reviewed security camera footage which seemed to back up Emily’s story. The footage showed her arriving at the house at 12:15 p.m. with a guitar, leaving at 12:32 p.m., and her brothers running out of the house at 12:49 p.m. 

Reports from the Sheboygan County Fire Investigation Unit indicated the exact origin of the fire was never located, although it was first noticed in the shed/garage area of the house. “There was thought that there was a possible explosion from natural gas, but no gas leak was ever located by the team and insurance investigator,” the complaint says.

An outpouring of community support for the widowed mother, whose husband had died five years prior, and her 16 children followed the fire, with a GoFundMe page set up by a daughter-in-law (also named Emily) raising over $26,000. A new house was subsequently built by the family on the same property. It took over 19 months and a second fire at the same property before investigators had evidence for what they now say is the true cause of the fire that destroyed the original home.

In March of this year, a sheriff’s deputy was dispatched to the residence “regarding a suspicious fire,” the complaint says. “Dispatch advised that there was a large amount of smoke coming out the basement of the residence.”

First contact was made with a brother of Antonio R. Schwarten, the 17 year-old now charged with arson. The brother “appeared to be suffering from smoke exposure,” the complaint states, who said everyone was accounted for except for Antonio, who he believed had started the fire. The mother said she did not know where Antonio was, but he had not returned from work, and she also believed Antontio had started the fire.

An inspection of the basement revealed a fire had been started in what was possibly a cardboard box filled with Christmas decorations, and spread to the opposite side of a bedroom wall. A smoke detector in the bedroom was pulled down and dangled from its wires. The fire melted a PVC water pipe, which extinguished the fire before it could spread.

A K9 unit was brought in for a search, but Antonio was eventually located by family members as he was walking down the street. He allegedly responded to police by saying his brother had told him about the fire, and saying “Why would I start a fire to kill my brother and mother?” With further questioning, Antonio eventually admitted to starting the fire in the basement, with the intention of scaring his brother, “because he’s been hurting him for too long.”

The mother did not believe Antontio was only trying to scare his brother, telling police “she believed the defendant had tried to burn the house down while she and [the brother] were sleeping. She reported that she had been afraid of the defendant for the past few days.”

Another member of the family, Cornel S. Schwarten, is currently serving 45 days in jail after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor battery charge. According to a criminal complaint, he hit his 16-year old brother the year before, in May of 2021. Cornel had been residing at the same address as the house fire just prior to the battery, according to court records. A responding officer observed the victim “walking around the area covered in blood.” The victim had scratches that were bleeding, a laceration under his left nostril, and a bite mark on the victim’s back, just below his neck, was also recorded.

Shortly after the second fire, the mother contacted the Sheriff’s Department detective to say that her daughter Emily had told her that she started the first fire, in 2020. Detectives contacted Emily, who admitted to telling her mother she had indeed started the fire, according to the complaint. 

“She told law enforcement that her intention for starting the fire was to hurt her mother. She told law enforcement, without prompting, that two years earlier she also attempted to kill her mother by poisoning her coffee,” the complaint states. “She said that those two things had been on her shoulders for a long time and she just could not hold it anymore.” She reportedly admitted that she had lit “this bag of stuff” in the shed on fire. She told police that she had been involved in a fight with her mother and that was why she was mad at her mother and why she started the fire.

According to the complaint, Emily “also told law enforcement that after the house was going up in flames she thought to herself, ‘what have I done.’ She said that it kept replaying in her head.”

Emily and Antonio are each being held on a $250,000 bond, with court dates pending. Cornel is also facing a 2nd Degree Sexual Assault of a Child charge in Outagamie County. 

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