Leon alleges arson accusation

By Tim Ruzek

Post-Bulletin, Austin MN

An attorney for Maria Leon, owner of the fire-damaged Mi Tierra properties downtown, says Austin police "prematurely and erroneously" accused his client of arson, which has delayed insurance benefits being paid to her.

The hold up with insurance also has delayed the cleanup of Leon’s property, Minneapolis attorney Douglas Nepp wrote in a document filed Monday in Mower District Court in response to a lawsuit from the city of Austin.

Leon denies the need for the city to clean up her property and "affirmatively asserts" that she has an adequate plan for abatement, Nepp wrote. The city’s clean-up isn’t needed until the insurance matter has been resolved, he stated.


Austin Police Chief Paul Philipp said Wednesday that his department has not accused Leon of starting the fire.

"We have investigated the cause and origin of the fire," Philipp said, "but we have not accused (Leon) of arson."

On Jan. 15, fire destroyed and damaged several buildings on the 400 block of North Main Street’s east side, including the Mi Tierra clothing store, restaurant and grocery store.

Authorities announced Feb. 27 that they believe the blaze was started intentionally in the front of the Mi Tierra clothing store at 406 N. Main St. Officials, however, never have named any suspects or given details about how the fire was started.

Philipp said police interviewed many people, including Leon, about the fire and the matter remains under investigation. But, the chief said, there have been no advances in the case for the past several months.

On Wednesday, Nepp declined to elaborate on his statement about Austin police because of the ongoing investigation.

As for Leon and her kids, "they’ve been financially devastated" by the fire, Nepp said.

Leon’s family was living above the Mi Tierra grocery store at the time of the fire.


Leon has not commented publicly on the fire.

Court records show the city’s lawsuit was served May 11 to Leon.

The lawsuit stems from the Austin City Council a resolution on May 4 finding Leon’s properties to be hazardous buildings because of fire damage. The resolution ordered repairs and/or demolition to be done within 30 days of Leon being served with the order.

If it has to take corrective action on the property, the city will collect all necessary costs under state law.

Assistant city attorney Craig Byram filed a motion on June 11 for the city to clean up the property.

On Wednesday afternoon, a cleaning crew — some wearing special white suits — could be seen removing items from the Mi Tierra grocery store.

Craig Hoium, the city’s community development director, said the city hired a crew to remove rotting meat that had been in vacuum-sealed packages in the store. The city, he said, got a complaint about an odor.

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