Former St. Paul officer charged with arson at building of his family’s St. Paul restaurant

Prosecutors charged a former St. Paul police officer Thursday with arson at the building that houses his and his wife’s St. Paul restaurant.

Law enforcement reviewed video from several cameras and saw a person, later identified as 55-year-old Tou Mo Cha, exiting Checker Board Pizza and then going into the building’s apartment entry, according to a criminal complaint. Cha walked away and the apartment entry started on fire.

When Cha was a St. Paul police officer, he was charged in 2004 with lending his department-issued handgun. The gun was used in a pair of drive-by shootings that targeted members of the Hmong community; no one was injured. Cha pleaded guilty to making terroristic threats in 2005 and resigned from the police force.

Reached by phone on Friday, Cha said he was unaware he’d been charged in the fire and said he was surprised.

“I had no intention or anything to do with it,” Cha said. “… I had no knowledge, I had no desire, I had no motivation to do anything like that. That’s my only income, my only job.”

The business remains closed — there was smoke damage “upstairs somewhere,” Cha said. The bar and upstairs portion of the building had been undergoing renovations for years, Cha said, adding that he still opened the kitchen for takeout and delivery before the fire.

Property records indicate the building at 992 Arcade St. in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood is not owned by Cha or his wife.

The business has also been called Checkerbar Food & Liquor and Checkers Bar Inc., and Cha’s wife held licenses for it through the city. St. Paul’s Department of Safety and Inspections recommended to the city council in 2020 that the bar’s licenses be revoked after Cha pleaded guilty to assault outside the bar, among other reasons. Cha’s wife voluntarily relinquished the bar’s licenses to the city in 2020.

The business, which Cha said Friday that he and his wife own together, had a license for food service from the Minnesota Department of Health.

Arson charge: Fire started at apartment entryway

About 6:20 a.m. Aug. 9, there was a fire at 990 Arcade St., a convenience store across Jenks Street from Checker Board Pizza. It’s been ruled an arson and the investigation continues, according to police.

The fire at Checker Board Pizza also happened on Aug. 9, about 1:25 p.m.

The Ramsey County attorney’s office charged Cha, of Little Canada, with second-degree arson of the Checker Board Pizza building. Prosecutors gave the following information in a complaint:

Video from the area showed Cha’s wife coming out of Checker Board Pizza and going to their vehicle. Cha went between the pizza shop and the doorway of the apartment, and the fire started a few minutes after he drove away.

Cha told police he had not gone to the apartment entryway where the fire started, “however, the video shows him to be there,” the complaint said.

Fire examiners concluded the fire began in the entry staircase of the apartment portion of the building. It was possibly ignited with gasoline.

The fire caused extensive damage to the building, costing more than $100,000.

Cha’s first court date wasn’t listed in court records as of Friday.

Past cases connected to bar

Cha was sentenced in 2019 to 90 days in jail for an assault outside Checker Board Pizza the year before. The case was at the center of an incident that resulted in the firing of five St. Paul police officers.

Cha admitted in court to hitting a man, who he described as his wife’s nephew, in the head with a baton outside Checker Board Pizza. The man, who said Cha had first pepper sprayed him, was hospitalized and needed 24 staples to close gashes in his head, according to the complaint in that case.

The police department said five officers failed to intervene and lied about what happened, leading to then-St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell firing them.

Before that case, police had received reports about Checker Board Pizza.

In 2014, 34-year-old Nicholas James Keilen died a couple of months after he said bouncers assaulted him outside the bar and restaurant. The Ramsey County medical examiner’s office ruled the manner of Keilen’s death as undetermined, and no one was arrested or charged.

Keilen’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Tou Cha and the bar. They received a settlement, though the amount was small due to the bar’s insurance company not covering damages. Claims again the insurance agent and insurance agency were settled for a nominal amount, according to the Keilens’ attorney, Kathleen Loucks.

Other men told police in 2011 and 2014 that security guards assaulted them. And in 2013, a group of people reported to police that Cha had pepper-sprayed them. No bar employees were charged in those cases.

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