Nation & World

He torched one of the iconic 'Bridges of Madison County' — and did not go to prison

Three teens burned down one of Iowa's iconic bridges of Madison County last year. Alexander Hoff, who authorities said was the instigator, got probation on Friday and townspeople who think the sentence is too light are angry.
Three teens burned down one of Iowa's iconic bridges of Madison County last year. Alexander Hoff, who authorities said was the instigator, got probation on Friday and townspeople who think the sentence is too light are angry. GoFundMe

Last year, 18-year-old Alexander Hoff and two other teens torched one of the iconic bridges of Madison County, Iowa — the Cedar Bridge, the one on the cover of the book that became the movie starring Meryl Strep and Clint Eastwood.

All along authorities described Hoff, the first arrested and last to plead guilty, as the Instigator. All three live outside the county.

"There was an ex-girlfriend that Hoff had a relationship with, and that bridge was significant to their relationship," Madison County Sheriff Jason Barnes told The Des Moines Register in May 2017.

Authorities said the other two put lighter fluid on the bridge, north of Winterset, and Hoff set it on fire.

On Friday, a judge gave Hoff a suspended 10-year prison sentence and five years probation and community service, reported KCCI in Des Moines. He had pleaded guilty to second-degree arson and first-degree criminal mischief.

The head of the local chamber of commerce, who has been raising thousands of dollars to repair the bridge, and others around town told the TV station they are angry about the punishment, which they consider light.

Followers of the Rebuild Cedar Bridge Facebook page had followed the cases against all three, putting out a call for people to attend Hoff's sentencing to "honor Cedar Bridge and, by our presence, make sure the judge understands the immense scale of this loss on our community."

The bridge appeared on the cover of "The Bridges of Madison County," the 1992 best-seller by of Robert James Waller.

According to the chamber, in the movie it was the bridge where Francesca Johnson, Streep's character, goes to meet National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid, played by Eastwood, to help him take photographs of the area.

"I don't know anyone who thinks this is a satisfactory outcome," Heather Riley, executive director of the Madison County Chamber of Commerce., told KCCI in Des Moines of Hoff's sentence.

"We wanted to see more accountability for those young people who came to our community and destroyed our covered bridge."

Winterset resident Zach Newbrough told KCCI that Hoff "should have at least had jail time or some kind of other punishment, more than probation. It's been the talk of this town for the last week.

"Personally, I think they should have to help someone rebuild the bridge."

Last month Joel Davis, 19, of Norwalk, and Alivia Bergmann, now 20, of Des Moines, received deferred judgments and five years' probation for their roles in the arson, the Register reported. They had pleaded guilty to second-degree arson.

"The reason we entered this agreement is because we believe we wouldn't be here today if not for Alex Hoff, another co-defendant," said Madison County Attorney Matt Schultz, WeAreIowa reported.

The Madison County Sheriff's Department responded to a report of the bridge on fire at about 6 a.m. on April 15, 2017. Crews found the bridge completely engulfed in flames and It took them about two hours to put out the fire, according to WeAreIowa.

The loss of the bridge shocked the county, known as the "Covered Bridge Capital of Iowa" for having the largest group of covered bridges in one area in the western half of the Mississippi Valley, according to, the website for the Madison County Chamber of Commerce.

Local media reported scores of people going to the bridge to take pictures of its burned remains.

"It sucks. It's one of those rare moments where you're speechless; you don't know what to say or what to think," Charity Rosander, who got married in the gazebo next to the bridge, told KCCI last year. "It's mind-blowing and sick of whoever did it."

Hoff, as it happened, was there, too. Before he was a suspect, he talked to a Des Moines TV station interviewing people at the scene about what the bridge meant to them, reported the Winterset Madisonian.

“Seeing this, it’s like - dang, who would have done something like this?” Hoff told the TV station, according to the newspaper.

Though the bridge case is now settled, Hoff still faces a separate second-degree arson charge related to a car fire in West Des Moines, where he lives, in March 2017, the month before the bridge fire.

At his sentencing on Friday, prosecutors showed video from inside Hoff's Madison County jail cell of him pummeling another inmate in a fight, reported WHO-TV. But psychologists for the defense and prosecution gave conflicting opinions about him and any future risk he might pose to the community.

The prosecution offered testimony from Veronica Lestina, a forensic psychologist who observed Hoff.

“He doesn’t really want to change or want to be different" and showed a lack of remorse, she said, according to WHO.

She said she believes Hoff is “at a high risk of ongoing criminal conduct including potential violence,” KCCI reported.

But Luis Rosell, the defense team's forensic psychologist, disagreed, saying he didn't think Hoff posed such a risk.

“It was a very significant offense to many different people and I think he understands that," Rosell said, according to WHO.

Both psychologists and Hoff himself noted his past history of alcohol and opioid abuse, KCC reported.

In court, Hoff said he was sorry for what he did.

"I would just like to apologize for the pain that I inflicted onto the community with my actions," he said in court. "It was a selfish reason why I acted out. It wasn't fair, it wasn't justified. I definitely regret it."

He added: "I feel like I have more potential to give this world than sitting in a prison cell."

Judge Richard Clogg gave him a suspended 10-year prison sentence and placed Hoff on probation for five years.

"Mr. Hoff, the county attorney made some good reasons as to why I should have not suspended your sentence, but it's my belief that you have the chance to become a member of society." Clogg told him in court.

The judge's decision didn't set right with Winterset resident Alexis Clouse.

"I think it's really disappointing that he doesn't have to pay the price for what he did," Clouse told KCCI.

The fundraising continues to rebuild the bridge, a project that chamber officials say will cost about $600,000. More than $500,000 has been raised so far, according to chamber executive Riley. A GoFundMe page was set up in January.

It was not the first time the bridge went up in flames.

According to the GoFundMe page, the original Cedar Bridge was built in 1883 - and was burned down by arsonists in 2002.

No arrests were ever made in that case, the GoFundMe page says, and the bridge was rebuilt, as it will be yet again.

On the morning of April 15th, 2017 firefighters throughout Madison County, Iowa arrived on scene to find the infamous Cedar Bridge engulfed in flames. For the second time in 17 years, a suspected arson managed to burn the bridge down to the frame.