MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – A 24-year-old Roberts, Wis., man is behind bars for allegedly setting fire to an elementary school on Tuesday.

St. Croix County prosecutors have charged Justin Nelson with arson, burglary and damaging property (all felonies). He could face up to 40 years in prison if convicted.

On Friday, a judge set bail at $100,000, but Nelson’s attorney said there was so way he could pay that amount. The attorney said Nelson lived with his parents in Roberts, was “unemployable,” had mental illness and physical disabilities.

Nelson said little as he sat before the judge in his orange jumpsuit and arm shackles.

According to the complaint, a woman came to authorities two days after the fire with information about Nelson. She told investigators she’d been at a party with him into the early Tuesday morning hours. She said Nelson told her he loves fire more than an ordinary person should and had left the party after a fight. She also said she knew Nelson to be a drug abuser of marijuana, Adderall and morphine.

Police believe Nelson entered the school through a skylight on the roof sometime after 1 a.m. with a ladder he’d found on the roof. They think he stole Adderall from the nurses’ office and busted open teachers’ locked classroom doors with fire extinguishers. Cameras belonging to some of those teachers were later found in his room, just a few blocks from the school.

“It really hurts to think someone would damage the school where these kids have gone,” said great-grandmother Margaret Wolske.

She and other moms of students at St. Croix Central Elementary came to the court hearing Friday.

“I feel like we are moving forward together,” mother Rachel McHenry said. “This is a step in the right direction.”

Investigators found the majority of the fire in the principal’s office, but also found four others spots in the school where fires had been started. According to the criminal complaint, Nelson said his memory of that night was “foggy,” but admitted to what happened saying, “I have reason to believe it was me.”

He added, “If I was going to light fires, I probably would have started them where I stole things.”

Investigators also questioned Nelson’s brother. The brother apparently said Nelson admitted the fire and burglary to him, but had also said he’d gotten rid of the evidence and wouldn’t get caught.

As for school getting back in session, it is set to re-open on Monday at the Rolling Ridges Girl Scout camp about four miles west of Roberts. Superintendent David Bradley said teachers and administrators were to have it ready in time.

There are many ways people can help donate supplies or help out. Information is available at the school district’s website.

A school supply drive will be held on Saturday. People can drop off supplies at the Hackman Town & Country on Highway 65 in Roberts.

A student-run bake sale will also be held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, May 11, and from 1 to 5 p.m. on Sunday, May 12.

It will be held in the Hudson, Wis., Wal-Mart parking lot. All proceeds go toward St. Croix Central Elementary.

For more information from the school librarian on which books to donate, you can visit her blog.


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