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Evidence suggests foul play in fatal Moorhead complex fire

The deaths of two people found at the scene of a fire in a Moorhead apartment building Friday appear to be suspicious, police said.

Police found evidence inside the apartment building that indicates foul play, said Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger, though he would not specify what evidence was found.

"This will probably be a criminal act," he said.

Investigators would have to develop an explanation they don't yet have for that to change, the chief said.

Police haven't identified the bodies, which appear to be two adults. The building is being treated as a crime scene, Ebinger said. The state's mobile crime-scene team from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension lab in Bemidji was collecting evidence on the scene after arriving just after 2 p.m.

Ebinger said the remains of the deceased were to be sent to the Ramsey County Medical Examiner in St. Paul on Friday night.

"That will tell us a lot," Ebinger said of the medical examiner's autopsies.

Lt. Tory Jacobson said he wasn't sure when identities of the dead would be made public because police haven't made positive IDs yet.

"It won't be anytime soon," he said.

Moorhead police and fire crews were called to the three-unit building at 901 9th Ave. S. at 7:06 a.m. on the report of a commercial fire alarm.

After knocking down the fire, calling departments in Fargo and Dilworth for assistance, fire personnel found the bodies. Jacobson said the mobile crime lab was called and police held the scene until the forensic investigators arrived.

"All of that was set into motion right away," he said.

Fire Chief Joel Hewitt said Friday morning that the cause of the fire isn't known.

A family of four and two other residents also lived in the building and are out of a home for now, said Steve Carbno, business administrator and disaster services coordinator for The Salvation Army.

Carbno said a father and a young girl were at home when the fire broke out, but the mother and an older son in the family of four were not. Two people from another unit were taken to the hospital, he said.

The Salvation Army and the American Red Cross are working with the displaced to provide temporary shelter and assistance for clothing, shoes, groceries and winter outerwear, according to Carbno and a Red Cross news release.

"Basically, what they were wearing was what they got out with," Carbno said of the fire survivors.

Jacobson said fire crews helped rescue at least two individuals from a second-story apartment unit. After speaking to the media early Friday, fire officials later in the day said questions had to go through police.

Shannon Smith lives in an apartment building at 907 9th Ave. S., an adjacent four-plex that's part of the two-building complex.

"I woke up, and I heard crackling," Smith said.

He went to his bathroom window and saw fire coming out two windows on the bottom level's southeast corner, flames tall enough to arch up toward the second story.

"It was unreal," he said.

Three first-floor windows were covered with plastic by Friday afternoon. The only fire damage visible on the exterior of the building was on its south and east sides. Police tape circled the building and the four-unit building next to it.

Though police have been unable to identify the bodies, Smith said he assumes they are the two residents who weren't accounted for - a college-aged woman and man.

Officials from Concordia and Minnesota State University Moorhead said they have no students registered at the address, though it's possible students lived there but haven't updated their address information.

An employee of RKAK Property Management, the company that manages the two-building complex, said there was a one-bedroom unit on the first floor of 901 9th Ave. S. and an efficiency unit and another one-bedroom apartment on the second floor. The property manager said only one person was listed on the leases for each apartment.

On the scene, firefighters had difficulty opening a frozen fire hydrant to help battle the blaze, Hewitt said. They eventually got a 2½-inch line hooked up, whereas normally they'd use a 5-inch line, he said.

"It's just the climate that we live in," he said. "Water, metal and below-zero temperatures, that's what we fight every day when we're out here."

Hewitt said firefighters had to cut into the walls to chase the fire once it breached the drywall or plaster.

"Crews did a great job. I'm proud of 'em," he said.

Forum reporters Mike Nowatzki and Amy Dalrymple contributed to this report.