St. Paul man set fire to parents home with them inside: Charges

A 55-year-old man in St. Paul faces charges for allegedly starting a fire in his parent's basement and walking away while they were still inside.

Court documents state John Joseph Swenson, 55, is charged with first-degree arson after he allegedly started a fire in his parent's home, which spread and caused extensive damage. Authorities allege this wasn't the first time he started a fire at the home. 

On Nov. 14, officers responded to a report of a fire around 10 a.m. on the 1600 block of Birmingham Street. Officers said they were familiar with the address after a resident living at the home, identified as Swenson, had previously set fires in the basement, according to court documents. 

When officers arrived at the scene, they found an elderly man outside the house covered in black soot from the heavy smoke that was billowing from inside. The man’s wife was still inside and an officer crawled into the house, found the woman and carried her outside. 

The woman said she "Thought the house would burn down" and she couldn’t breathe or see anything and didn’t think she would make it out alive, the criminal complaint said. 

Surveillance footage from neighboring houses allegedly shows Swenson outside the house around 9 a.m. "Yelling obscenities and hitting the garage door with a pipe," charges said. Around 7 minutes later, he was walking through the backyard and disappeared onto a nearby street. 

Shortly after, smoke was seen coming from the lower part of the home, and large plumes escaped "as if something has ignited," the court documents read. 

The St. Paul Fire Department said there was heavy smoke, heat and fire damage in the living room area of the basement. They concluded the fire most likely started on the furniture in the basement, court documents state.

The charging documents say Swenson had a lighter in his pocket and possible soot on his hands when he was detained by authorities. 

Police say they've previously responded to two fires at the home, which authorities claim were caused by Swenson. In June, officers responded to a call and saw smoke coming from the basement and noticed Swenson exit with a torch lighter in his hand, court documents say.

In September, officers responded to a second fire after a neighbor saw smoke coming from the basement. Officers spoke with Swenson, who allegedly said he started the fire "for attention" but did not intend to burn the house down, court documents state. 

It does not appear Swenson was charged for either of the earlier fires. 

Swenson made his first court appearance for the most recent incident on Wednesday. If convicted, he could face up to 20 years behind bars. The judge set his bail at $100,000.