WASHINGTON, IA (AP)--A well-known Lee County farmer has been charged with arson and theft in connection with a fire that happened three years ago at a large hog farm near Wellman, IA.

Mike Ernest Pieper, 46, Wever, IA, was arrested July 6 on charges of second-degree arson and first-degree theft in the July 7, 1998, fire that killed 3,000 hogs in Washington County.

The Wellman Fire Department was called back three more times the day after the fire because the blaze was repeatedly ignited.

The Iowa State Fire Marshal's office ruled the fires were intentionally set.

"There were some recent developments, and I would say very recent developments, that enabled us to bring the charges," County Attorney Barbara Edmonson said.

If authorities had waited two more days to file charges, the state's three-year statute of limitations in the case would have expired and no charges would have been filed.

Pieper, a farmer who has been recognized by several farm groups for having high yields, also is charged with perjury and obstruction of justice. He is accused of trying to collect on an insurance policy after the fires and attempting to destroy evidence related to the fire.

Pieper is charged with perjury because he had made statements under oath as his insurance company was investigating the blaze, Edmonson said.

Pieper commented on the charges July 9.

"The truth will come out, and that is about it," he said.

Edmonson said fire losses totaled more than $10,000.

An October 1996 fire at a Pieper hog farm in rural Lee County was not investigated as suspicious and is not under investigation now, said Lee County Sheriff Dave Ireland.

Authorities said the fire, which killed 2,000 animals and caused an estimated $528,000 in damage, was sparked by a short circuit in a fan.

Pieper posted $20,000 bond after he was arrested July 6. His arraignment is set for July 20, at 9:30 a.m.

Pieper employs about 50 people for a farm and hog business and construction firm.

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