Eight minutes after midnight on Sunday, the Otter Tail County Sheriff’s Office got a report concerning a wooden bridge near County Highway 41 and Star Lake.
The bridge was on fire.
The caller said they could see a gas can on the burning bridge and spotted a vehicle leaving. By the time fire and rescue arrived at the scene, the bridge was crackling away on all sides. Some of the flames, witnesses told KVRR, made winding patterns on the asphalt surface, as if following a narrow trail.
“It appeared gasoline was deliberately poured onto the bridge and set afire,” the report from the sheriff’s office says. “Several propane tanks were also found near the bridge.”
Charges say they were 20- and 30-pound propane cylinders stashed underneath the structure, and one appeared to have blown up and started bobbing on the surface of the water. The air was pungently gassy.
Detectives and the state fire marshal’s office started poking around the following day.
By Wednesday, Ryan Johnson, 42, appeared in Otter Tail County District Court facing three felony charges: one for arson, one for possessing a firearm after a violent crime conviction, and one related to making or merely having an explosive device.
He’d been picked up near Detroit Lakes less than 24 hours later. Johnson owns property right next to the bridge, and neighbors knew he’d been having a hard time, thanks to an ongoing divorce and an apparent pet tragedy.
According to the Post Bulletin, before the fire, Johnson had been posting on a Star Lake Facebook group, looking for information on the death of his dog. He said he had surveillance footage of the animal being hit by a vehicle, and was offering a $1,000 reward for tips on, in his words, his dog’s “murderer.”
Johnson wrote: "I just need to know if it was on purpose or not."
Johnson told investigators he had nothing to do with what happened to the bridge, and the Post-Bulletin reports he was among those who lamented the inconvenience its burning would cause on Facebook.
A search of Johnson's home turned up a shotgun, ammo, marijuana, and “drug paraphernalia,” according to court documents, but he wasn’t charged with any drug crimes. He has prior convictions for burglary, theft, and threats, though none in the past 20 years.
He was transported to Otter Tail County Jail, and is being held on $200,000 bond.