Torching of bridge one of weirdest crime stories in Otter Tail history…
…or at least the most bizarre arson case on record in Star Lake Twsp.
It’s been said that arson is one of the most difficult crimes to gather evidence, build a case, and successfully prosecute.
Well, the folks in the Star Lake area will soon find out whether true or not.
In the case of the “Great Star Lake Bridge Sabotage of Labor Day Weekend 2020,” the investigation and inital arrest were fairly simple.
The Otter Tail County Sheriff’s Department had “their man,” or at least a suspect, within 24 hours—with help from the Minnesota State Fire Marshall’s office.
This accused arson didn’t stray too far from the scene of the crime: He lives the equivalent of a long fishing rod cast (with heavy tackle) from the scorched bridge.
Ryan Curtis Johnson, 43, is accused of deliberately pouring gas onto the mostly wood bridge and setting the fire, around midnight Saturday, Sept. 5.
Several propane tanks were also found near the bridge, around midnight on Sept. 5.
Suspect Johnson owns the first house north of the bridge, on the west side of County Road 41. His home address is listed as Mapleton, North Dakota.
The bridge-burning was perhaps the weirdest occurence ever in the Star Lake neighborhood. At least…the weirdest since an ambitious Native American reservation bought a couple hundred acres of marginal farmland, with plans to build a gambling casino near a wild rice swamp.
Particularly puzzled were the Dent Volunteer Firefighters. They had never battled a bridge blaze—at least not in recent memory. Fortunately, the firefighters had a handy water source for their pumping rigs; as the torched County 41 bridge crossed a strip of waterway between Big Star and the West Arm of the Star Lake chain.
Sadly, suspect Johnson’s dog was killed on county Road 41 on Sept. 4. Evidently he was so upset with the loss, that he wrote a Facebook Post on a Star Lake site—offering a $1,000 reward for information on the “murderer” of his dog.
Star Lakers began exchanging comments after the fire. They discussed alternate routes, since the bridge was roped off with yellow crime scene ribbon. One Star area resident posted on Facebook: ‘This is a vital link for everyone here. Emergency responders and people living their lives need this bridge! May they quickly rebuild it and PUNISH SEVERELY the criminal that did this HEINOUS ACT!”
Responding to this post was somebody with a name matching the suspect himself: Ryan Johnson. He wrote: “Agreed! It could be a vital passing. Not defending this idiot just trying to be positive in this sad development.”
It is unclear whether these Facebook posts may—or may not—have incriminated the suspect.
As the matter was unfolding, neighbors and businesses were trying to make sense of the episode. Being neighborly, they were reluctant to repeat rumors or gossip.
“Everybody is really upset,” said Becky Lindemann. “How could anybody do something like this?”
Ruth Felton, owner-operator of Spruce Lodge for the past 43 years, didn’t know what to make of the situation. Actually, she wasn’t even aware of it until one of her resort guests informed her Sunday morning, Sept. 6.
“They went to the boat landing to trailer a boat, but they had to take the long way around because the bridge was out,” said Betty. They didn’t have their cell phones along, so the guy piloting the boat sat at the landing wondering where in the heck his boat-trailer connection disappeared to.
Some folks actually heard the explosion over at Frank’s Lodge, on Star Lake’s West arm. And, soon after, the blaring sirens.
Kathy Frank went out to check the cabins. Everything was OK.
“One row of campers had a nice view of the burning bridge,” said Kathy. Frank’s Lodge is one of the longest-operating family resorts in the region, with Grandpa Frank opening the doors during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Kathy’s husband John Frank is a third generation resorter.
They would like to extend Frank’s Lodge to the family’s fourth generation. In the future, it would be nice if people refrained from setting fires to bridges. The resort business can be a frail proposition–especially if guests are unable to drive their vehicles to the resort.
“We wondered if maybe somebody had a gripe against us,” said Kathy.
Thankfully, the Otter Tail County Sheriff’s Department diligently called the Franks to inform them that the water way below the bridge was open to boat passage. Frank’s Lodge does a brisk business in marine fuel.
An inspection by a structural engineer is expected, to determine if Otter Tail County can allow traffic over the bridge.
Motives for the bridge arson seemed to defy rationale and logic. This led some Star Lakers to early whispers of “terrorism,” though there appears to be nothing to support the notion that the very premeditated act was politically motivated.
Neither County 41 nor the Star Lake bridge are strategic targets, so that rules out a foreign military motive.
As it stands, investigators have an arson suspect with local connections—who may have burned bridges with his Star Lake neighbors.
Star Lake bridge reconstruction could top $1 million
It’s too early to confirm, but if the Star Lake Bridge required complete reconstruction and replacement, the price tag could range between $800,000 and $1.2 million.
“It is charred extensively…I would say about 85 percent,” said Otter Tail County Highway Engineer Chuck Grotte. “There’s not much of the wood that hasn’t burned.”
Structural engineers were called in by the county, and were on site Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 8. Grotte anticipates that the bridge will be closed this week, and beyond.
“I can’t imagine having anything firm by this week,” he added.
The bridge is primarily a wood structure. Some of the pilings are metal, and the driving lanes are a bituminous overlay, said Grotte. But the bridge itself is wood timber for the columns and beams, a timber deck structure, and the walkway is timber plank.
It took firefighters three hours to completely extinguish the flames on the 58 foot expanse, he noted.
By road and bridge standards, the Star Lake structure is relatively new—built in 1987.
The bridge was dedicated by the Star Lake Township Board as a memorial to John and Lucille Frank. The couple was apparently instrumental in the campaign to replace an old culvert with a complete bridge. The old culvert impeded boat traffic between Star Lake and the western arm, a narrow stretch of the Star chain that extends westward.
“We’ll have to look at the bridge and see if it is at all useable in its current condition; and go from there,” said Grotte.
—Louis Hoglund, managing editor