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Night club owner arrested after Fargo fire

FARGO, N.D. (AP) -- Police arrested the owner of a downtown nightclub destroyed in a Sunday blaze that spread to two other businesses.

Police Lt. Jon Holman said John Michael ''Mike'' Maurer was arrested shortly after 2 a.m. today at a motel. Formal charges were pending and Holman declined to immediately release details.

The fire, reported shortly after 5:30 a.m. Sunday, began in Maurer's Tropics Nightclub. The business occupied the first floor of an older three-story building on historic Broadway Street. The flames spread quickly to two adjacent buildings housing a fitness center and sandwich shop, said Assistant Fire Chief Larry Schuh.

All three of the brick buildings collapsed during the fire. Schuh said firefighters were able to keep flames from spreading to an adjacent bank, but that business and at least one other suffered water and smoke damage.

''It is definitely suspicious,'' Police Chief Chris Magnus said. ''We are going to be investigating it that way.''

A number of firefighters were treated for minor smoke inhalation, and Maurer was treated for minor injuries and released.

Magnus said Maurer told investigators he had been injured when he confronted someone inside his nightclub Sunday.

Schuh said investigators would have to sift through mounds of rubble before a cause of the blaze could be determined. But Magnus said recent events at the nightclub heighten the suspicion that the fire was set.

On Jan. 29, nightclub personnel found what Magnus called a ''crude'' explosive device. It consisted of a bottle filled with flammable liquid and a homemade fuse. The device was discovered shortly after nightclub officials said they had received a bomb threat, he said. The device did not explode.

On March 22, Maurer told police he scuffled with a man he found inside the club after hours. The suspect escaped and authorities later found a container full of gasoline in the club.

In addition, Magnus said Maurer has reported receiving a number of other threats in recent months. He had been staying at the club overnight at times to guard against trespassers, the chief said.

Firefighters were alerted to the blaze by alarms in the sandwich shop next to the nightclub. Magnus said that at the same time the alarms were going off, Maurer apparently walked from the nightclub to the fire station, about 1 1/2 blocks away, and reported the fire.

''He gave us a statement that basically he had been assaulted,'' Magnus said.

Schuh and Fire Chief Bruce Hoover said the fire was intense. The city's entire firefighting force was called out, along with about a half-dozen from neighboring Moorhead, Minn.

Schuh said that at one point, firefighters were attempting to battle the blaze on the second floor of the building that housed Tropics but were forced to retreat when the floor began giving way.

''A couple of our people actually stepped right through the floor,'' Schuh said. ''So at that point, we called everybody out.''

Moments later, a dangerous backdraft, an explosion of super-heated oxygen, blew out the front windows of the nightclub, scattering broken glass, debris and burning embers over two blocks.

Hoover, a 25-year veteran of the Fargo Fire Department, said Sunday's blaze was the worst he had seen.

Mayor Bruce Furness said he was thankful it was contained and that no one was seriously injured or killed.

''This is an unfortunate occurrence,'' the mayor said. ''But one of the fortunate occurrences is that no one got injured badly.''