Federal and local investigators still searching for suspect in Richland Co. jail arson, possible explosion

Richland County Law Enforcement Center in Wahpeton, ND.
Richland County Law Enforcement Center in Wahpeton, ND.(Valley News Live)
Published: Mar. 2, 2022 at 5:23 AM CST|Updated: Mar. 2, 2022 at 6:02 PM CST
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WAHPETON, N.D. (Valley News Live) - The investigation continues into a fire and possible explosion at a local county jail that forced an evacuation of inmates and prompted federal investigators to join the case.

It happened just after 9:30 Tuesday night at the Richland County Jail in Wahpeton when officials say someone walked into the lobby, threw something and smoke and flames soon broke out.

“This could have been a fatal situation. Thankfully it wasn’t,” Jonathan Ortiz, ATF Assistant Special Agent with the St. Paul Field Division said.

Local detectives, the North Dakota BCI and the ATF are all helping in the investigation into what 911 dispatchers described as a firework-like explosion.

“When something like this happens, especially at a government building, it’s alarming to us and we want to see what’s going on,” Ortiz said.

While investigators say at this time it’s unknown what caused the fire, Ortiz says he’s hoping a determination will be made by tomorrow.

“We have surveillance video from the law enforcement center. One person enters the building and the fire starting shortly after,” Ortiz said.

All 15 inmates were evacuated for their safety Tuesday night. Seven of them went to Barnes County, the other eight were transported to Cass County. All 15 were transported back to Richland County late Wednesday afternoon.

“We always want to be good neighbors of course,” Cass County Sheriff Jesse Jahner said. “There might be an instance in the future where we need to ask their help to relocate some of our inmates if we get overcrowded or something like that.”

Jahner says he and his deputies first did a safety sweep of the outer perimeter of the jail with the help of Fargo Police’s explosive detection dog to make sure there weren’t any suspicious devices on the property.

“Of course our first concern was do we need to be concerned about our facility? Was this an isolated incident or is there someone specifically targeting correctional centers? Correctional facilities?” he said.

Jahner says nothing was found, but extra patrols were done on the jail into Wednesday morning as an added precaution. He says his staff will continue to closely monitor all activity in and around the jail.

Meanwhile, ATF officials assure at this time there doesn’t appear to be any safety risks to the public.

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