Charges reveal how owner allegedly burned down Press Bar in St. Cloud

Lighter fluid was found in his truck nearly two weeks after the blaze.
Publish date:
Andy Welsh

Charging documents have revealed the moments before and after a fire destroyed the Press Bar and Parlor in downtown St. Cloud early on the morning of Feb. 17, with the bar's owner, Andrew Welsh, 40, of nearby Sauk Rapids, facing two counts of felony arson. 

According to a criminal complaint, Welsh was the last person to leave the bar at 2:11 a.m. Eighteen minutes later, at 2:29 a.m., city surveillance showed smoke coming from the establishment. Six minutes later the smoke coming from the building was significant, and four minutes after that the fire alarms inside the neighboring Cowboy Jacks were going off. 

Thirty minutes after Welsh left, two residents occupying apartments on the top level of the building were forced to evacuate as the smoke intensified. 

Firefighters arrived at 2:45 a.m. and fought the dangerous blaze until the early afternoon, at which point the building was caved in and smoke had filled the streets of downtown St. Cloud. 

After approximately 90 minutes fighting the fire, one firefighter became disoriented and had to be guided out of the basement to safety. Just minutes after the last firefighter escaped the building, the entire Press Bar was fully engulfed in flames, the complaint says. 

At 5:49 a.m., the entire east wall of the building cracked and collapsed. 

To keep the raging fire from spreading to other businesses and buildings, St. Cloud Fire Department ordered the rest of the standing walls to be pushed in with an excavator, which allowed them to switch from a defensive attack to an offensive attack and put out the flames. 

Investigators determined that the fire started on Welsh's basement desk, also finding evidence that indicated an accelerant was used. Test results showed a presence of an "ignitable liquid" on Welsh's desk. 

In an interview with police, Welsh denied any accelerants or other items in his office that could start a fire. He also said he and the last bar employee left at the same time that night, but surveillance footage revealed that Welsh left three minutes after the employee. 

The charging documents reveal that Welsh and his former wife bought the Press Bar in 2016 for around $850,000, having still owed approximately $550,000 on the Contract for Deed. 

Welsh has a $1.3 million insurance policy that covered building repairs and another $300,000 policy for equipment repairs, leading investigators to believe there was a financial motive behind the arson. 

Welsh was arrested Feb. 29 while investigators from the ATF and St. Cloud Police Department conducted search warrants. On the floor of Welsh's truck was a bottle of Ronsonol lighter fuel. 

"Based upon the entirety of the investigation, investigators determined that the defendant had the means, possessed the motive, and had the sole opportunity to commit arson," the criminal complaint says. 

"The evidence establishes that the defendant intentionally used an accelerant on his office desk and ignited the vapors from the accelerant, causing the Press Bar fire. The resulting fire caused damage to the entire Press Bar property, the property connected to the Press Bar, and endangered the residential tenants on the other side of the appurtenant wall above Cowboy Jacks."

Welsh has been charged with one count of first-degree arson of a building using flammable material, and one count of first-degree arson of a dwelling. Each charge carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years. 

Bail has been set at $1.2 million. 

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