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Emily Welker, Published January 08 2014

Longtime downtown Fargo resident charged with setting fire to Broadway apartment

FARGO – Cass County prosecutors have charged a longtime downtown resident with setting his Broadway apartment on fire when he faced eviction for failing to pay rent.

Douglas John Zeller, 49, was charged Monday in Cass County District Court with one count of Class B felony arson and one count of Class C felony endangering by fire or explosion.

Court documents filed in the case say firefighters called Sept. 28 to the scene at 117½ Broadway, No. 19, found suspicious circumstances in the kitchen of Zeller’s apartment.

Two burners on the gas-top stove were turned all the way up. And the fire, which started near the refrigerator and trash can, burned several items on the floor, including a paper shredder.

Water was running under the door of the apartment and the place was thick with smoke and natural gas odor, documents state.

Downstairs, Teaberry restaurant owner Tan Trung Nguyen told Fargo police Detective Jason Skalicky that his property was soaked with water, electricity was out and all the ceiling tile had fallen down. It cost him more than $10,000 to fix the damage, documents state.

Zeller’s neighbors, Timothy Lundstrom and Sharon Lien, who lived next door with their two children, told police they saw Zeller on their security camera leaving his apartment. Within 10 minutes of Zeller leaving, they smelled smoke and heard the sprinkler system go off.

When Zeller came back to the apartment at the request of Fargo police, he was upset and kept reaching into his pockets, where an officer found a cigarette lighter. Zeller told the officers he didn’t smoke.

Zeller told officers he hadn’t used the stove for a week, and the paper shredder for a month or more. He guessed the fire started with wiring and gas stoves, and denied setting it.

Representatives of Swanson Properties told another officer, Fargo Detective Matthew Niemeyer that they took Zeller to court to evict him for failing to pay his rent.

Zeller, who lived there for 20 years, had until Sept. 30 to get out, the Swanson officials said in the judge’s eviction order.

Zeller indicated he wanted to pay his back rent, but Swanson officials told him it was too late because the judgment had been signed, they told Niemeyer.

Fargo fire investigators determined Oct. 1 that the fire was intentionally set with an open flame on the paper shredder.

A court date in the case has not been set. A phone number listed for Zeller was disconnected.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Emily Welker at (701) 241-5541