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Principal charged with arson at North Dakota Catholic high school

March 06, 2014|By Paresh Dave
  • Msgr. Patrick Schumacher inspects fire-damaged Trinity High School in Dickinson, N.D. The Catholic high school's principal has been charged with setting the blaze.
Msgr. Patrick Schumacher inspects fire-damaged Trinity High School in… (Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune )

A North Dakota Catholic high school principal has been charged with setting fire to the building, forcing classes to be canceled for the week and rendering the half-century-old schoolhouse unusable until at least summer.

Thomas Joseph Sander, 30, is accused of torching the contents of a file cabinet in Trinity High School's office vault early Monday with the intent to burn down at least part of the structure, which is in Dickinson.

Sander is charged with arson and endangerment by fire. The latter charge was merited, prosecutors said, because Sander knew someone was staying inside the school’s second-floor apartments, yet showed an “extreme indifference to the value of human life.”  

READ: Complaint against Thomas Sander

On Thursday, police also arrested a juvenile on suspicion of hindering the investigation. The suspect was being held at juvenile hall pending a hearing.

The fire ravaged the school's office and lobby. Smoke and water damage was more widespread, and the school said “major work” would be needed. KFYR-TV reported that among the few things found uncharred were a picture of Pope Francis and a statue of a crucifix.

A teacher who was asleep in the school told Forum News Service that a fire alarm roused him from bed. He fled across the street to the principal's house.

Sander was called in for an interview hours after the fire, Dickinson Police Capt. Joe Cianni said in a statement. Sander mentioned something to investigators that gave them reason to arrest him, Cianni said. A police spokeswoman refused to elaborate to the Los Angeles Times.

Assistant State's Atty. Rhonda Ehlis, who is prosecuting the case, didn't return a call for comment.

The school, which accommodates grades 7 through 12, shut down for the week, canceling classes, a music concert and track practice. Its 260 students and parents gathered for an Ash Wednesday Mass, where they learned that classes would be moved to nearby schools and a church for the rest of the academic year.

“Despite the damage at Trinity High School, we have confidence that Dickinson Catholic Schools and the Dickinson community will emerge from this difficult situation as a stronger family,” the Diocese of Bismarck said in a statement. “Although these events are immediately devastating, the future for Dickinson Catholic Schools is filled with hope.” 

Bishop David Kagan and school board members were expected to tour the school Friday and assess the damage. The building is reportedly insured, but the school said on its website that it was seeking donations for costs that will be “substantial.”

School officials said they had been briefed by the police, but the motive for the fire remained unclear.

"The circumstances of how this came to be is beyond our understanding right now," Msgr. Patrick Schumacher told KYFR late Wednesday.

Sander was in his first year as principal, according to state records. It was unclear whether he had an attorney. 

A prosecutor said Sander lived in Omaha before taking the Trinity job last summer, the Dickinson Press reported.

If convicted, Sander faces up to 10 years in prison on each of the felonies. Jailed in lieu of $500,000 bond, he is due back in court for a preliminary hearing April 21. If he posts bond, he is under a judge's orders to avoid the school and to stay in North Dakota.

Dickinson police said the investigation was being aided by the state fire marshal's office and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobbacco and Firearms.

— Carter Fong (@CarterFong) March 5, 2014

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