Facing significant debt, a divorce and declining business, the owner of the St. Cloud Press Bar and Parlor set the building on fire after closing for the night last month, according to charges filed in Stearns County.
Prosecutors in Stearns County charged Andy Welsh, a 40-year-old farmer and entrepreneur, with two counts of first-degree arson Tuesday morning. The charges allege Welsh purposely lit his basement desk using a flammable accelerant before leaving after 2 a.m. on Feb. 17. At the time, two tenants were living in apartments above the adjacent building.
Welsh had an insurance policy on the bar covering $1.6 million in building and equipment repairs, in addition to the opportunity to sell the downtown St. Cloud property it stood on, which prosecutors say gave him motive to light the fire.
Welsh bought the bar in 2016 with his then-wife for $850,000 in a contract-for-deed agreement. He still owed $550,000 when the bar burned to a total loss, according to charges.
Welsh also faced lawsuits from contractors who claimed he never paid them for their work. He's due in court later this month in a lawsuit brought by a construction company alleging he failed to pay more than $50,000 for a concrete project in 2018. He's also reached settlements with two co-ops and a DJ, all of whom sued him for not paying them in the past two years.
In Welch's divorce last year, a judge ordered him to sell the Press Bar and split the earnings with his wife by Jan. 20. He met with several real estate agents but never put the bar on the market, according to charges.
The 78-year-old business was in trouble. Employees told police that slow sales forced Welsh to lay off staff and stop serving tap beer.
An employee, who is not named in court documents, told investigators he opened the bar around 7 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 16, and arrived to find a door unlocked. The cash bag from the night before was short $200.
"Why is the bank so thin?" the worker texted Welsh.
"I grabbed the wrong one last night to put out," Welsh replied.
Welsh showed up later that night and stayed in the basement later than usual, the employee told police. It was a slow night and they closed up around 1:30 a.m. Welsh offered to take the night's cash down to the basement.
The employee left Welsh alone in the bar just after 2 a.m.
Within the hour, police called to say the building was on fire.
At 2:39 a.m., a woman who lived in an apartment above Cowboy Jack's, in the building adjacent to the Press Bar, awoke to the sound of a fire alarm. She and a neighbor saw smoke billowing from the building. They evacuated their apartments as firefighters pulled up on the street. It took about 40 crew members to extinguish the blaze, which burned into the morning.
"Andy the Press was on fire," the employee texted Welsh. "You need to get down here. It's getting worse. They said there is a hole burned through the first floor from the basement."
Welsh didn't respond, which the worker remarked to police he found "not normal."
The next day, the bar published a statement praising the firefighters' swift work. "We are thankful that no one was in the building at the time of the fire. We've gained many great employees, friends and memories there over the years. We appreciate your thoughts and prayers."
By the end of the week, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives called in a national team of specialty arson investigators to determine the fire's origin. After digging through the rubble, the agents concluded the burn patterns didn't match an appliance fire. An ATF dog sniffed out chemical accelerants on top of the basement desk, which tested positive for an "ignitable liquid," according to charges.
Surveillance footage showed Welsh leaving at 2:11 a.m., making him the last person in the building. On Saturday, police arrested Welsh at his home in Sauk Rapids, Minn., a sparsely lived-in residence with only a few items of men's clothing, an empty suitcase, towels and several rolls of toilet paper. They found nearly $2,000 in assorted paper-clipped bills in his truck and a bottle of Ronsonol lighter fuel, according to charges. They later discovered 31 boxes of financial documents.
"Investigators determined that the defendant had the means, possessed the motive, and had the sole opportunity to commit arson," the charges state. "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 Jack's."
Welsh told officers he'd slept on his ex-wife's couch that night and put his phone on silent, which is why he didn't respond to texts.
"Andy is absolutely innocent. He has been arrested for a crime that he did not commit, and if charged by the government, he will be acquitted at trial," his attorney said. "He is a good man and a loving father, has no criminal history, and should have never been arrested."
Welsh appeared in court Tuesday morning, during which a judge set bail at $1.2 million without conditions or $200,000 with conditions.