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West Bank's Chester experienced early trauma as a child

More details are emerging about the background of the late squatter known in the West Bank and environs as Chester, who grew up on a farm in central Minnesota as Bruce Nelson and suffered family trauma early in life.

According to people who lived in the area outside Zimmerman, Minn., the world of the boy born as Bruce Nelson was shattered as a boy by an auto accident in Iowa during a family trip. The crash stripped him of his mother and younger sister, who died. His brother and his father were left severely injured when a truck pulled out in front of the family car.

Nelson was the only one conscious when police arrived, according to a relative who asked not to be identified. Another woman who went to a Methodist church with the family recalls it taking months for Bruce's legs to heal.

His father, Arthur, eventually remarried but Bruce didn't get along well with his stepmother, according to Lona DeMars, a slightly older neighbor who went to school with Bruce. "He was very smart. He was almost too smart," she said.

At one point, the relative said, Bruce confided during a 4H tour of his father's Christmas tree farm that he'd been made to sleep in the barn. Those who knew him as a boy said they considered him odd or a loner. "Nobody knew him well. He was different," DeMars said. He left home at an early age.

The man known as Chester to people in the University of Minnesota area for decades sported a top hat and lived under the Tenth Avenue Bridge in a squatter's compound with a wooden shed and metal crate for shelter.  He was found dead on Saturday evening by his longtime female companion. He was in his mid-60s.

(Photo above: Chester on the Stone Arch Bridge by Stefan Presslein; photo below: Chester in downtown Minneapolis by A. Carl Photography)

Three children killed in fire on North Side

Three children died Sunday in an early-morning fire that apparently originated in the kitchen and tore through their home in the north Minneapolis’ Jordan neighborhood, officials said.

The bodies of two of the victims were found in a first-story bedroom in the rear of the house by firefighters when they arrived to battle the blaze, according to family members and a fire scanner recording posted on MN Police Clips. The third victim was taken to an area hospital, where he or she later died, officials said.

The county medical examiner's office is expected to release the victims' names and their causes of death in the next few days.

When they arrived, firefighters found the modest two-story frame house at at 2755 Penn Av. North "fully engulfed" and encountered heavy smoke and fire while trying to reach a rear bedroom, where a 911 caller said the children were "trapped," according to the scanner recording.

“There’s no way we can enter this from the rear, this whole place is involved,” a fire official is heard telling a dispatcher on the recording.

One of the house’s occupants, who said she had stepped outside briefly before the blaze broke out, said that she tried to enter the burning house but was driven back by flames and dense smoke. She said the fire may have been caused by an oven that was left turned on and unattended.

As she spoke, sobbing family members consoled each other on the street.

“Lord let this be a dream,” one man wailed, after speaking with fire officials. “Let me wake up and hear my nieces and nephews voices again.”

The blaze, which was reported shortly before midnight, apparently started on the ground floor, before spreading to the roof, according to scanner traffic and fire officials. By 1:25 a.m., the blaze had been extinguished.

The incident recalled a similar tragedy on Valentine’s Day of 2014, when five children were killed after a North Side duplex went up in flames. That blaze was one of the deadliest in Minneapolis history.

The cause of Sunday's fire is under investigation.

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