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Emily Welker, Published August 19 2013

Eyewitnesses, cellphone records used to link Moorhead arson suspect to Coach's fire

MOORHEAD – Officers investigating a fire at the long-empty Coach’s Sports Pub here used a combination of eyewitness accounts, surveillance video and cellphone tower records to link the arson to a Moorhead man, according to court documents.

Jeffrey Joseph Little, 29, is out on $12,000 bail after being charged Friday in Clay County District Court with one count of first-degree arson and one count of second-degree arson, both felonies. The maximum penalty for the charges is 20 and 10 years behind bars, respectively.

According to court documents filed in the case:

• A Moorhead police officer who was working a downtown beat about 2:39 a.m. July 8 on Main Avenue and Eighth Street noticed a plume of smoke coming from the vacant building that had once been Coach’s bar.

• As the officer was working to control traffic in the area, a boy passing by in a taxi told him that while he was waiting nearby to be picked up, he heard a man walking by with another man say, “I could have grabbed six, but I already set the place on fire.”

• Moorhead police detective Ryan Nelson interviewed a homeless man who was sleeping in the doorway of the bar the night of the fire and who said he was awakened by a man who stumbled over him carrying a long white roll of paper. The man was wearing a white shirt with cut-off sleeves, and shortly thereafter, the homeless man saw him making calls on a cellphone.

• Nelson pulled surveillance videos from nearby businesses, including Vic’s Lounge, which showed a man in a light-colored cutoff shirt holding a cellphone headed toward the bar about 2:26 a.m. The same man is apparently seen later with another man on surveillance video from United Sugar leaving nearby Vic’s Lounge, then the pair split up.

• Still pictures from Vic’s Lounge were released to the public for help in identifying the men. Moorhead police received many tips identifying the two men, one of which was Little. The other was identified as Chad Michael Gerding.

• Nelson pulled records from a cellphone tower within the same time frame and found a call placed between two numbers, one of which they traced to Little, the other to Gerding. Little denied knowing anyone at the other number. A witness told police he had heard the other man, Chad Michael Gerding, say that Gerding and Little were in Coach’s bar the night of the fire and Gerding was worried about surveillance video.

• Nelson interviewed Little, who said he and Gerding were in Coach’s bar the night of the fire. Little said they did not start the fire, but they stole a roll of wallpaper.

• Gerding, in a police interview, told police he was not with Little at Coach’s bar, but that the two had split up during the evening. He said when they met again, Little had a roll of wallpaper, and when Gerding questioned him about the fire, Little gave vague responses.

• In a subsequent interview, Little told Nelson he did not remember starting the fire, but if he did, he was sorry.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Emily Welker at (701) 241-5541