On March 11, 2016, the Stearns County Communications Center received a 911 phone call at 4:43 p.m. reporting heavy smoke coming from the rear of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Melrose. A second caller reported flames coming from the same area. The Melrose Police Department, Melrose Fire Department and Melrose Ambulance service responded along with the Freeport and Sauk Centre Fire Departments. Firefighters from these agencies battled the blaze and had it contained around 8:30 p.m.
In the following days, an investigation began involving the Melrose Police Department, The State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF). The fire caused several million dollars in damage to the 118-year-old Romanesque Revival style church. About a week and a half after the fire, investigators officially determined and released information that the fire was classified as an arson.
The church was a fixture in the City of Melrose with its 130 foot towers. The fire caused extensive damage to the altar and sacristy area. The wood altar, which was made in Germany, and installed prior to the churches dedication in 1899, was completely destroyed. In addition to the damage cause by the fire, there were several feet of standing water in the basement.
For the next 22 months, the Melrose Police Department diligently investigated the arson fire along with their State and Federal partners. They conducted a thorough investigation and followed up on any leads and tips. In January of 2018, the Melrose Police Department contacted the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office and requested assistance in reviewing the file and providing additional investigative help.
Stearns County Investigators began a review of the file and identified areas to further investigate. During the course of the investigation, numerous people were re-interviewed and potential evidence re-examined. On Tuesday June 5th, Stearns County Sheriff’s Office Investigators conducted an interview with a juvenile. During the course of that interview, the juvenile confessed that he/she intentionally set the arson fire at the church.
The Stearns County Attorney’s Office charged the juvenile, who was 13 years old at the time of the offense, with Arson in the First Degree in Stearns County Juvenile Court. The Juvenile Court proceedings are, by law, confidential because of the juvenile’s age at the time of the offense. No further information concerning those proceedings can or will be released.
Sheriff Don Gudmundson said, “Any unsolved crime produces a sense of unease in communities. I know the arson of the church has left an indelible mark on the entire area. In solving the case, the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office was pleased to take the fine investigative work of the Melrose Police Department, the Minnesota State Fire Marshal and Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives to a successful conclusion. It is our hope that this will be a positive step in putting the community at ease along with the healing for the congregation of St. Mary’s Catholic Church.”
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