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Willmar auto shop arson charges dismissed, another man claims he started fire

WILLMAR -- Two felony arson charges against Raul Antonio Menendez Vega, 34, of Willmar, were dismissed last week by the Kandiyohi County Attorney's Office.

The charges, one first- and one second-degree count, were filed after a May 19 fire at Vega's auto repair business, Tony's Auto at 625 Litchfield Ave. S.W. in Willmar.

The dismissal, filed Thursday, noted that "in light of recently developed evidence, it appears that in the interests of justice additional investigation of this case is warranted."

The case had been set for a jury trial to begin Tuesday in Kandiyohi County District Court. Just one day before the dismissal, Judge Michael J. Thompson issued an order that attorneys in the case would argue the admissibility of hearsay evidence before beginning to select the jury.

The evidence, according to a motion filed by Vega's attorney, was that two witnesses would testify a man told them he started the fire because Vega had gotten him fired from his job at the Jennie-O Turkey Store.

The defense motion says that Abass Mumin told another man that he "had a beef" with Vega and that Mumin said he started the fire. An investigator hired by the defense attorney had located Mumin in a Fort Morgan, Colo., jail where he was being held on criminal charges. An attorney for Mumin told the investigator that his client would claim his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination if called to testify.

The Willmar Fire Department responded to the scene and extinguished the blaze, of both the shop and a vehicle, after a Willmar police officer discovered the fire around 2:50 a.m. May 19.

A detective and a state fire marshal were also called and discovered several broken and intact Molotov cocktails in and around the building. The incendiary devices were beer bottles, filled with a liquid substance. Rags were stuffed into the bottle opening.

The building had been locked, forcing firefighters to break down the door to enter the office.

It was also noted the hole in a window was too small for a person to enter.

The detective met with Vega, who said he had $150,000 in insurance to cover the loss.

He said he had opened the shop May 1, but wasn't making any money because business was slow. Vega's sole employee told the detective he had been at the shop until 5:20 p.m. the day before the fire and confirmed that only he and Vega had keys because they had just changed the locks.

The fire marshal determined the fire in the SUV started in the rear cargo area and moved through the interior of the vehicle. The fire marshal ruled out accidental causes. The vehicle was registered to Nino's Auto Sales and valued at $4,000.

Similarly, the building was examined and the fire marshal eliminated all accidental causes.

The fluid from two intact bottles found in the building was sent to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for examination. It was determined to be gasoline.

Gretchen Schlosser

Gretchen Schlosser is the public safety reporter, and writes about agriculture occasionally, for the West Central Tribune. She's been with the Tribune since 2006 and has 17 years of experience working in news, media and communications. 

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