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Man charged in torching of western Wisconsin elementary school

  • Article by: Paul Walsh
  • Star Tribune
  • May 3, 2013 - 3:12 PM

A 24-year-old man was charged Friday with breaking into a western Wisconsin elementary school through a skylight and torching the building, stealing drugs and cameras and causing about $1.5 million in damage that has displaced hundreds of students for the rest of the school year.

The arrest of Justin W. Nelson, of Roberts, Wis., in the arson attack on St. Croix Central Elementary School in Roberts was made late Thursday afternoon, two days after the fire, said Police Chief Dan Burgess.

Nelson, charged Friday with arson, criminal damage to property and burglary, admitted to forcing his way into the school and setting it ablaze, according to the criminal complaint. He also stole drugs from the nurse’s cabinet that are used to treat attention deficit disorder and cameras from classrooms that he entered by busting door handles with a fire extinguisher, the complaint added.

Fire investigators determined that Nelson set fires in four locations in the building, the charges read.

According to the complaint:

A friend of Nelson’s said she saw him at a party near the school that night, and he said he loved playing with fire. At one point, she continued, he put something in a bonfire to make it flare up.

Later during the gathering, Nelson was accused of drinking all of the alcohol at the party, prompting him to leave in anger in the direction of the school. The friend said she knew Nelson to be an abuser of marijuana, Adderall and morphine.

Mark Nelson, the defendant’s brother, said Justin admitted several hours later to setting the school ablaze and stealing the drugs.

Under questioning, Justin Nelson said he suffers from “blackouts” at times but remembers much of what he did that night, including set the fire and stealing items.

The overnight fire was centered on the front of the school, at 202 S. Division St., severely damaging the offices and library, according to police. The blaze was contained in less than two hours.

Instruction for the rest of the week for the 600 or so students was called off. Administrators are planning to resume classes Monday at the Rolling Ridges Girl Scout Camp, 4 miles west of Roberts.

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482

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