April 24, 2024

Owners of historic home in Newton defend themselves and property from an intruder

Suspect was subdued by resident in August Bergman House break-in

Megan and Philippe Couillez own the historic August Bergman House in Newton, which was recently broken into. Philippe was home when the break-in occurred on July 9 and got into an altercation with the suspect, who was subdued until police officers arrived to arrest the man minutes later. Video camera footage alerted Megan to the break in while she was at work.

Homeowners of a historical residence in Newton say they subdued an alleged burglar on July 9 until authorities arrived on scene to make the arrest.

Philippe and Megan Couillez, owners of the August Bergman House, told Newton News they were alerted a little before 2 a.m. of the man entering their home. Megan was working in Des Moines and was notified of the break-in by her home security cameras, which were connected to her smartphone.

Meanwhile, Philippe was in bed watching TV when he heard a noise downstairs. He at first thought the family’s pet cat had knocked over a chair again, which happened the night before. Then he heard a man’s voice. Philippe rushed out of bed and found himself face-to-face with a total stranger at the top of the stairs.

“What are you doing? Who are you? Get out of my house!” Philippe recalled saying to the man, who was rambling incoherently about a woman and appeared to be under the effects of drugs or alcohol. “Buddy, you’re in my house. You need to leave or I’m calling the police.”

Then Philippe said the man tried to punch him. Philippe pushed him down stairs, grabbed his phone and proceeded to call 911. By the time he’s on the phone with a dispatcher, Philippe said the man got back up the stairs and grabbed his leg. All the while the man was yelling and would eventually hit Philippe, cutting his lips.

What the man did not know about Philippe is that he has a black belt in aikido and was a member of the French Army. Philippe said he knocked down the man hard enough that he would not be severely injured, but he would certainly have a difficult time getting back up. Police arrived a few minutes later.

POLICE IDENTIFY THE SUSPECT

The suspect, who was later identified by Newton Police Department as 35-year-old Joseph K. Mahl, has since been taken to jail on charges of first-degree burglary, public intoxication and assault on persons in certain occupations for allegedly being “assaultive” to officers after the arrest and spitting in one’s face.

Newton police officers were dispatched to the August Bergman House at the 600 block of First Avenue East for a report of a burglary in progress. Police arrived to find Mahl inside the residence. Mahl allegedly damaged the front door before entering and proceeded to assault the homeowner once inside.

If convicted, Mahl could face up to 25 years imprisonment for the burglary charge, considered a Class B felony. Public intoxication is a simple misdemeanor, which can garner up to 30 days in jail and $625 in fines; assaulting a police officer is a serious misdemeanor worth up to one year in jail and $1,875 in fines.

Newton Police Chief Rob Burdess said it is rare to have a residential burglary occur when the home is occupied. Although there are a few residential burglaries annually, most in Newton involve garages, vehicles or businesses. Based on national statistics, most residential burglaries occur in the daytime, Burdess said.

“Homeowners have the right to protect life and property under Iowa Code Chapter 704,” Burdess said. “The homeowners took appropriate actions to protect themselves and were able to subdue the suspect. We are fortunate that no one was seriously injured in this incident.”

HISTORY OF THE HOUSE

The August Bergman House has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1989 and has been included in the First Avenue Historic District. August H. Bergman was a former Iowa state senator and a Newton businessman who was an early investor of Maytag. He lived from 1872 to 1933.

According to City of Newton documents regarding the August Bergman House, the property remains much as it did when it was first constructed in 1909. The same architectural firm that designed the home had also designed the county courthouse. Several “exceptional” architectural elements still remain intact.

Following the break-in and the ensuing struggle, Philippe said a number of minor repairs will be needed. Burdess said the case is considered a property crime but is enhanced due to the physical altercation. Since 2019, Burdess said property crime reports in Newton have dropped nearly 44 percent.

The Couillez family has owned the historic home since 2019 and have rehabilitated much of it. When they bought the house, Philippe and Megan were informed of its past reputation. After it ceased to be a bed and breakfast, Megan said the property was used by homeless people and others for illegal activities.

“This isn’t our first run-in,” Megan said of the experiences the family faced with other people trying to enter the home. “Usually it’s a homeless person who is like, ‘Oh, I thought this was a homeless shelter.’ And then they just turn around and leave and say, ‘I’m sorry.’ This is the first time somebody’s physically attacked.”

COMMUNITY RESPONSE

A couple of hours after the incident occurred on July 9, Megan posted on Facebook a screenshot of what appears to be Mahl entering the residence. “This is why we have security cameras and want a fence,” she said in the post before detailing what had occurred early that morning.

The post garnered almost 180 reactions and more than 80 comments. Many online commenters shared their condolences but were thankful no one was hurt. Philippe said the August Bergman House page — used to show the home’s restoration progress — received about 50 more followers after the incident.

Philippe and Megan were happy to see the community supported them and their efforts to protect their home.

“They see that we have put a lot of effort and lot of money to try and bring back the house. Seeing someone doing that, they were very sad,” Philippe said. “… It was a very unfortunate event.”

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext 6560 or at cbraunschweig@newtondailynews.com

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig has a strong passion for community journalism and covers city council, school board, politics and general news in Newton, Iowa and Jasper County.