Police say student was making smoke bomb when Champaign apartment fire erupted

CHAMPAIGN - A Champaign man who police say was trying to make a smoke bomb in his kitchen that sparked a fire has been criminally charged.

Austin Povilaitis, 22, a University of Illinois accounting student from Edina, Minn., was charged with felony criminal damage to property and reckless conduct in connection with the fire that happened about 3:25 a.m. in his second-floor apartment at 105 E. John St.

The fire prompted evacuation of about 14 residents, who were allowed back into their apartments just before 1:30 p.m. Wednesday.

State's Attorney Julia Rietz said Povilaitis admitted that he was trying to make a smoke bomb using a recipe and chemicals that he obtained from the Internet.

"While trying to cook the materials, flames shot out and fire spread across the kitchen floor," said Rietz. "He tried to extinguish the fire by moving the couch across the kitchen floor on to it." The misdemeanor reckless conduct charge alleges Povilaitis endangered his friend, Evan Hayes, 21, of Naperville.

"His friend is in the apartment studying and asked him what he was cooking. Povilaitis said, 'It's a surprise' and all of a sudden, smoke and fire," Rietz said.

She said Hayes became disoriented from the smoke and got on the floor. He crawled to a window, broke it out, and jumped. He was not injured, according to fire department spokeswoman Dena Schumacher.

Povilaitis sustained minor burns but refused treatment. A firefighter also was slightly injured.

Firefighters were called at 3:24 a.m. and arrived four minutes later, finding heavy black smoke when they arrived. The fire was contained mostly to the kitchen and was under control by 4:08 a.m.

Police obtained a search warrant for the apartment and notified the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Povilaitis was arrested and taken to jail Wednesday morning. He posted bond and was released then was arraigned on the charges in an afternoon court session.

Residents in the 14-unit, three-story building, owned by Gerald Marshal, were evacuated and sat inside a Mass Transit District bus for warmth. "Police were called and secured the building and said no one could go back in until they get the search warrant and get whatever they need to get. That's why they were displaced, not necessarily because of the fire," Schumacher said.

UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the affected students were all able to find alternative accommodations. UI staff provided warm clothing and contacted the students' teachers, employers and others as needed, she said.

Povilaitis is due to be back in court Dec. 12 with an attorney. He remains free on bond.

If convicted of the felony charge, he faces penalties ranging from probation to one to three years in prison.

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