Solving an arson: Inside the fire at St. Cloud’s Press Bar

Three years after a fire ravaged a historic corner of downtown St. Cloud, a large empty lot remains surrounded by a chain link fence. 

A multi-million-dollar redevelopment plan is now in place, but there are few reminders of the 139-year-old building that once stood in that location. 

For Tim Andersen, a former bartender at the Press Bar & Parlor, it is impossible to forget what happened in the early morning hours of February 17th, 2020.

“It is just kind of burned in the memory,” Andersen said.  

After the owner of the popular college-town bar pleaded guilty to arson last year, 5 INVESTIGATES obtained previously unreleased evidence, including photos, videos, and interviews.

State and federal investigators recently explained the complexities of arson investigations and what ultimately led to the arrest and conviction of Andrew Welsh.

“The firefighter in me wants to see the positive, that nobody would do this,” said James Iammatteo, Deputy State Fire Marshal with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS). “There’s certain flags that came up in this, and you start adding them up, and it leads you down a path.”

Street camera videos

The first red flags came from videos recorded by City of St. Cloud street cameras. 

One of the videos obtained by 5 INVESTIGATES shows Welsh was the last to leave the Press Bar after 2 a.m. on the morning of the fire.

A second video revealed the first signs of smoke on the street about 19 minutes later.

“It was a little odd that he stayed until close,” Andersen said. “It was unnecessary. We weren’t busy.”

Federal investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) say they did not disclose that they had already seen those videos when they first interviewed Welsh at the St. Cloud Police Department.

5 INVESTIGATES reviewed the two-hour-long interview in which Welsh denied any involvement, but also seemed to be feeling out investigators for how much they already knew about the cause of the fire.

“So, no ideas or nothing yet, huh?” Welsh asked agents with the ATF and State Fire Marshal’s Office. “I heard a little bit that they were thinking in the walls or something.”

Clues in the basement

Over the next nine days, agents in white jumpsuits from the ATF’s National Response Team separated piles of debris onto blue tarps as they worked their way down into the Press Bar’s basement.

William McCrary, Special Agent in Charge of the ATF’s St. Paul Field Division, compared the process to putting together a jigsaw puzzle without any idea of what the final picture will look like. 

“A lot of people think all the evidence gets burned up. It doesn’t,” McCrary said. 

ATF investigators say Welsh’s desk in his basement office was a turning point in the case.

While the intense fire destroyed the two main floors of the Press Bar, crime scene photos obtained by 5 INVESTIGATES show the wooden legs of Welsh’s desk, along with sections of carpet in his basement office were untouched by the flames.

“So, that’s an indication to investigators to start looking, ‘ok, maybe this fire started somewhere above here,'” McCrary said. 

A K-9 with the ATF alerted agents to the traces of an accelerant on top of Welsh’s desk.

“There was what’s called a ‘pour pattern,'” Iammatteo said.

Investigators say one sample later tested positive for gasoline and petroleum.

Welsh claims ‘fake news’

Less than two weeks later, state and federal investigators confronted Welsh with their findings during a second interview recorded at  St Cloud’s police headquarters.

“Bulls**t,” Welsh responded.

He later pleaded guilty to one count of arson but still refused to admit what happened just minutes before he learned his sentence last September.

“The government put out all this fake news… and everybody believes it and runs with it,” Welsh told 5 INVESTIGATES as he walked into the federal courthouse in St. Paul. “They’re really good at lying, and that’s all I’m going to say.”

Welsh is now an inmate at the Federal Prison Camp in Duluth, where he is serving a nearly six-year sentence.

Prison administrators say he declined an interview request from 5 INVESTIGATES.

Court records previously reviewed by 5 INVESTIGATES reveal Welsh was in financial trouble and still owed $550,000 for the Press Bar.

Prosecutors say Welsh stood to collect nearly $2 million from insurance.

On the day of his arrest, investigators said they found a bottle of “Ronsonol lighter fuel” in Welsh’s vehicle.

“He thought he was smarter than everybody else,” Andersen said. “I think he legitimately thought he could get away with this.”  

In a memo to the court before sentencing last year, Welsh’s attorney described him as a man who “perceived his life was falling apart” and that he only set his building on fire “after steps were taken to make sure no one else was present.”

‘Set up to fail’

Three years after the fire at the Press Bar plans to redevelop the site are moving forward.

The City of St. Cloud says a $4 million project will include a new Cowboy Jack’s restaurant as well as a mix of other retail and office space.

As the city moves forward, firefighters reject the notion that the fire at the Press Bar was only a property crime.

“Could a firefighter have been killed going into that basement?” Iammatteo said. “Absolutely.”

Captain Pat Ellering, a 20-year veteran of the St. Cloud Fire Department, is one of the firefighters who responded to the Press Bar that night.

“The way that fire was started and the timeframe it worked under, I think we were set up to fail,” Ellering said. “Just in the sense that fire had a big head start on us.”

Firefighters say a thermal imaging camera helped them see that flames had burned a hole in the first floor of the Press Bar before they ordered crews to get out of the building.

“It could’ve happened differently where the hole was soft, and we didn’t see it, and somebody goes through that floor,” Ellering said. “That’s a worst-case scenario for us.”

Tim Andersen, the former bartender, says he also wonders what could have happened if he had gone back inside the bar one more time that night, unaware of the fire in the basement.

“It would have been right under where I would have been sitting,” Andersen said. 

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