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Two charged in connection with Jan. 5 fire

A fire early Thursday morning destroyed a pole barn on U of M property.

Two young men playing with fire appear to be the cause of a fire that destroyed a shed last week on property owned by the University of Minnesota on property in Empire Township.

The Dakota County Attorney's office filed formal charges Thursday against 22-year-old Rosemount resident Joseph Michael Sanem and 21-year-old Apple Valley resident Matthew Thomas Berntsen in connection with the fire.

Dakota County sheriff Dave Bellows said good luck and good police work led to the arrests shortly after the fire was reported early on the morning of Jan. 5.

Dakota County Sgt. Jim Gabriel was patrolling on the U of M property around 2 a.m. Thursday when he noticed a car parked with four occupants and wondered why they were out and about. He stopped the car to ask why they were in that remote area so early in the morning.

"He's given an answer like, 'We were just exploring,'" Bellows said.

Gabriel didn't find any reason to detain the individuals, so he let them go.

According to the complaints filed Tuesday in the county attorney's office, Gabriel noticed flames a short time later coming from a building near where the car had been parked. Gabriel put out a request to locate the vehicle, and Rosemount police officer Josh Swenson stopped the car a short time later. Three of the individuals were still in the car. Police located Sanem at his home. All four individuals were brought to the Dakota County Sheriff's office, and Bellows said based on interviews Sanem and Berntsen were arrested.

After initially refusing to give a statement, Sanem reportedly told police the fire started when he and Berntsen were climbing around on hay bales inside the shed. He said they were joking around when Berntsen lit one of the bales in several places to see if it would ignite, and that things got out of hand.

Sanem told police the other two individuals in the car, identified in the complaint only as young males, had no idea what was happening in the shed.

The Thursday morning fire destroyed the shed and all of its contents. Damage has been estimated at between $50,000 and $100,000.

Berntsen and Sanem have both been charged with felony counts of burglary, arson and criminal damage to property. The burglary and arson charges each have a maximum sentence of 10 years and a maximum fine of $20,000. The property damage charge has a maximum sentence of five years and a maximum fine of $10,000.

Rosemount firefighters received the call just after 2 a.m. Firefighters from Farmington and Hastings also responded. Firefighters were on the scene for about five hours. Because the fire was in a remote location trucks had to haul water to the scene.

The shed was used primarily for storage of hay bales and a few older pieces of machinery. The hay inside caused the fire to burn long and hot, Rosemount fire chief Scott Aker said. Once the blaze was knocked down enough, a front end loader was brought in to spread out the smoldering hay. Rosemount firefighters left the pile to smolder and asked University staff to monitor the remains throughout the day and notify the fire department if there was a flare-up, Aker said.

Assistant fire chief Jim Voelker said firefighters were called out to the barn again Thursday afternoon to deal with a rekindled fire.

Nathan Hansen

Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.

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