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Smith: Fire at Jack London's place a popular whodunit

Humans outnumbered chairs at the Sonoma County Museum when author-sleuth Jonah Raskin took on the mystery of the fire that ravaged Jack London's grand Wolf House in Glen Ellen just as he and his wife Charmian were set to move in 100 years ago.

"I don't know that we have a whole lot of facts," Raskin started off by saying Thursday evening. But he and the PD's history-savvy Gaye LeBaron offered an intriguing array of possible motives, overheard remarks and circumstantial evidence that suggest a felonious alternative to the prevailing account that most likely it was the spontaneous combustion of workmen's rags that destroyed Wolf House in August of 1913.

Raskin said the arson suspects include London himself, who'd earlier written, "It will be a happy house — or else I'll burn it down." LeBaron recounted how the young son of builder Natale Forni heard Charmian London tell her husband not long before the blaze, "You'll never live here."

Raskin told the museum crowd his prime suspect is an unidentified man he calls The Double — an impersonator who caused London grief via deceits that including forging checks in his name and wooing women while posing as him.

Still, Raskin allowed that myriad other possibilities exist, among them that the Wolf House was torched by a Glen Ellen neighbor or neighbors who resented London for his drunkenness, the grandeur of his new home and/or his socialism.

That's the scenario retired bank teller Mildred Rogina, 88, feels compelled to address.

As a young woman, Rogina worked 26 years as caretaker of the Folger Coffee family ranch on Sonoma Mountain, between Glen Ellen and Santa Rosa.

Reading that Raskin would offer his take on the mystery of the fire, she told me that late neighbor Robert "Bob" Kennedy declared often that he and two Sonoma Valley brothers burned London's house. Kennedy lived where the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center is now.

"He didn't say how, but he said they set fire to it," Rogina said. "They didn't like him," she said, mostly because they deemed the famed author a boozer and a womanizer.

Rogina's children also heard Kennedy claim that he and two accomplices destroyed London's house before he lived even a day in it.


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