The former owner of a St. Cloud bar will serve nearly six years in prison for burning down his business more than two years ago to collect more than $1.4 million in insurance.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge Eric C. Tostrud sentenced Andrew C. Welsh, 43, of St. Joseph, to 71 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release. Tostrud also ordered Welsh to pay $3.1 million in restitution.
In May, Welsh pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of arson for setting a basement desk on fire with gasoline in February 2020. After the fire, he filed an insurance claim for $1.43 million.
According to the county's charges, Welsh bought the bar in 2016 with his wife for $850,000. At the time of the fire, he still owed $550,000 and faced several lawsuits from contractors who claimed he never paid them for their work.
In Welsh's divorce a year before the fire, a judge ordered him to sell the bar and split the earnings with his wife. However, he never put the bar on the market.
An employee told investigators Welsh was alone in the bar just after 2 a.m. Feb. 17, 2020. Within the hour, police called to say the building was on fire, according to court documents. By the end of the week, a national team of specialty arson investigators were on scene and found chemical accelerants on the basement desk.
A document signed by U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger asked the court to impose a sentence of 71 months due to Welsh causing "immense destruction and [putting] lives at risk by starting a catastrophic fire in the basement of his bar."
In a court document submitted ahead of sentencing, Luger said the crime was motivated by greed.
"Although [Welsh] had financial troubles, he had legitimate means of dealing with them. He could have sold his bar and broken even. He could have surrendered the property back to the sellers on the contract for deed. He could have worked to renegotiate his debts. Failing all else, he could have declared bankruptcy," Luger stated.
The fire was particularly dangerous, Luger said, because employees of neighboring businesses were in the process of closing and at least two residents were present in apartments in a adjoining building.
"Firefighters risked their lives, businesses lost millions and a community was scarred due solely to [Welsh's] greed," Luger stated.
The lot where the bar once stood — a prominent corner along Fifth Avenue and St. Germain Street near the River's Edge Convention Center — has been vacant since the fire. The city cleaned up the site but a fenced-off lot with a charred wall of an adjacent building still is visible.
In June, the city's Economic Development Authority authorized an agreement allowing the owners of the neighboring bar, Cowboy Jack's, to apply for tax-increment financing to cover the costs of demolition and reconstruction. The two buildings used by Cowboy Jack's, which date to 1907 and 1910, were damaged by water and smoke. The owners of Cowboy Jack's also purchased the former Press Bar site for use in the redevelopment.