ST. CLOUD — The owner of the Press Bar that was destroyed by fire Feb. 17 in St. Cloud was charged Tuesday with arson.
Andrew Charles Welsh, 40, of St. Joseph, Minn., appeared in Stearns County District Court on two felony counts.
He has been charged with first-degree arson of a building using flammable material and first-degree arson of a dwelling, which both carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and/or a $20,000 dollar fine.
According to a news release from the Stearns County Attorney’s Office, unconditional bail was set at $1.2 million and bail with conditions was set at $200,000.
His next hearing is scheduled for March 16, according to court records.
The fire investigation by multiple federal, state and local authorities — including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives National Response Team — revealed the fire started in the basement of the Press Bar, on top of Welsh’s desk.
According to the criminal complaint, investigators spent two days removing large debris from the site at the corner of Fifth Avenue South and West Saint Germain Street with a backhoe and a crane. They then used buckets and hand-sorted smaller debris.
The two-story Press Bar building had been leveled after the east wall on Fifth Avenue cracked and collapsed in the Feb. 17 fire. The St. Cloud Fire Department ordered the remaining walls pushed in with an excavator that had been called to the scene.
Even though the building had been demolished, an oxygen-deficient environment in the basement led to the survival of areas in the basement, the criminal complaint states.
Investigators were able to determine original burn patterns which left a “clean” white burn pattern of Welsh’s office. Investigators determined that the fire spread rapidly and that this was consistent with a fire started by an accelerant.
An ATF accelerant detection canine indicated the presence of potential accelerants, and an ATF forensic science laboratory later indicated the presence of an ignitable liquid from samples taken from Welsh’s desk.
ATF investigators and the St. Cloud Police Department executed a search warrant at Welsh’s Sauk Rapids residence Feb. 29 and found more than $1,900 in varied denominations in Welsh’s truck along with a bottle of Ronsonol lighter fuel.
The criminal complaint pointed to a financial motive for the arson, citing multiple Press Bar employees who said business was declining and that Welsh had been reducing staff and ended the sale of tap beer.
Welsh and his ex-wife purchased the bar in 2016 for about $850,000, and Welsh said that he still owed $550,000 at the time of the fire, according to the complaint.
Welsh had an insurance policy on the bar which covered about $1.3 million for building repairs and about $300,000 for equipment repairs. This did not include the value of the land itself.