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Accused arsonist arrested, charged

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The worst of the damage from Tuesday's fire at St. Croix Central Elementary School was in the school's offices. The library, next door also suffered heavy damages. Most classrooms suffered minimal structural damage, although some classroom materials were damaged by smoke and may not be usable. Teachers were able to enter the building and retreive some personal items on Friday, May 3.2 / 2

Bond was set at $100,000 cash Friday afternoon for a 24-year-old Roberts man charged with setting the fire that caused $1.5 million in damage to the St. Croix Central Elementary School Tuesday.

Justin W. Nelson, 46 Frank St., Roberts, was arrested late Thursday afternoon by Roberts police with help from the ATF and several other agencies.

He is charged with three felony counts: arson of a building, criminal damage to property and burglary of a building. Judge Eric Lundell also ordered that, should Nelson make bail, he is to maintain absolute sobriety and not to come within 1,000 feet of the school.

A preliminary hearing is set for 2:30 p.m. Monday, May 13.

The arrest came just a day after the ATF joined the hunt and offered up a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of those involved.

According to Investigator Brent Standaert of the St. Croix County Sheriff's Department, officers obtained a search warrant for the home where Nelson lives with his parents after a woman reported that Nelson had left a party the night of the fire following an argument. The elementary school is located directly between the house where the party was held and Nelson's home.

The woman said Nelson had told her, according to the investigator's report, "that he loves fire more than an ordinary person should."

Nelson isn't a stranger to law enforcement. Last November he was found guilty of disorderly conduct as a result of an incident on Jan. 19, 2012. He was fined $1,240 in that case and ordered to make restitution.

He was also sued in January 2012, seven months after he crashed his car into an oncoming semi-truck on Hwy. 63 in Clayton. The trucking company's insurer and the truck driver, Michael Kuchar of DeForest, won a $40,759 judgment against Nelson. He had allegedly crossed the centerline and struck the semi head-on at 9 a.m. on a Wednesday morning.

Nelson suffered serious leg and hip injuries in the crash, which left him trapped in his 1995 Ford Probe for nearly an hour. Charges of OWI and operating left of center were filed but later dropped.

The blaze at St. Croix Elementary School was discovered about 3:45 a.m., Tuesday, April 30.

Officials said the fire burned in several locations, ravaged through the school office and library and broke through the roof.

In a statement, Roberts Police Chief Dan Burgess said federal, state and local officers joined together to solve what he called a "senseless violent crime."

St. Croix Central Schools Superintendent David Bradley said smoke caused most of the damage, and he expects the school to re-open in the fall.

Preparations are now underway for the school's 624 students to spend the final month of their academic year at Camp Rolling Ridges, northeast of Hudson. That facility has been closed for about two years, but Bradley says workers have been scrambling to clean up the camp and get it ready for the youngsters.