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Nelson pleads guilty in school arson case

A Roberts man has been convicted of one felony charge in the arson of St. Croix Central Elementary School in Roberts April 30 resulting in immense damage and forcing the school to close for the rest of the year.

Justin Walter Nelson, 25, pleaded guilty to felony arson Aug. 30. Charges of criminal damage, burglary and possession of THC were dismissed.

Judge Eric J. Lundell ordered a pre-sentence investigation and set a status conference for 1 p.m. on Oct. 18. Nelson, who appeared from jail, has been held on $100,000 cash bail.

The fire was discovered about 3:45 a.m. When the Roberts-Warren Fire Department arrived smoke and fire was visible on the roof of the school.  An investigation revealed a majority of the fires were in the principal’s office and caused severe damage to the roof structure. Also a locked cabinet was broken into and controlled substances taken from the nurse’s office, and cameras were taken from classrooms, the criminal complaint said.

Nelson had attended a party April 29 about a block from the school, became angry and left the party between 2 and 3 a.m. The school was located between the party and his residence. A search warrant was conducted on Nelson’s residence and uncovered a stolen camera and apparent marijuana and drug paraphernalia in his room, according to the complaint.

From May 6 until the end of the school year on June 7, classes for the elementary students were held at the Girl Scout Camp on the eastern edge of the Town of Hudson.

Teachers had to conduct classes without books and supplies that were lost in the fire. One exercise included using the sidewalk and chalk to work on spelling during a sunny spring day.

The school opened on Sept. 3, but work is continuing on the school’s office, library and computer room with the hope for completion by Nov. 1. The district estimated repairing the damage will cost some $4 million. Early estimates placed the fire damage at $1.5 million, but Steve Sanders, who retired as principal at the end of the year, said it was much more, because “because 10 rooms were gutted, books supplies, everything was lost.”

Burglary, theft and criminal damage charges from a separate case involving a break-in at the U.S. Post Office April 18, and break-ins at Family Hair Studio on March 29 in Roberts were read into the record for restitution and dismissed.