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Fire-related charge against Leith mayor dismissed days before trial

BISMARCK - Less than a week before trial, a judge on Wednesday dismissed a charge against the mayor of Leith that stemmed from the burning of an abandoned home previously owned by white supremacist Craig Cobb.

BISMARCK – Less than a week before trial, a judge on Wednesday dismissed a charge against the mayor of Leith that stemmed from the burning of an abandoned home previously owned by white supremacist Craig Cobb.

Mayor Ryan Schock had been scheduled for a jury trial to start Tuesday in Grant County District Court. He faced up to a year in prison and a $3,000 fine if convicted of the misdemeanor charge of failure to control or report a dangerous fire.

But Special Assistant Attorney General Paul Emerson, who was prosecuting Schock, filed a motion Wednesday seeking to dismiss the case without prejudice “for the reasons that there is insufficient evidence to obtain a conviction and prosecutorial discretion.”

South Central District Judge John Grinsteiner signed the order Wednesday afternoon.

“It was definitely a surprise to me,” Schock said in a phone interview with Forum News Service.

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Attorney general’s spokeswoman Liz Brocker said the motion to dismiss speaks for itself and the office would have no further comment.

According to an affidavit filed with the complaint almost a year ago, Schock set fire to the abandoned residence on May 24, 2014, with plans to destroy it via a controlled burn.

However, the fire spread to an adjacent old church building belonging to Schock, and he allegedly didn’t contact authorities to help contain it. That building burned hot and long enough to endanger the neighboring home of Mike Bencz, according to the affidavit by North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Tim Erickson.

“The fire was eventually controlled but not before endangering life or substantial amounts of the property of others,” the complaint stated.

The abandoned home was one of about a dozen properties purchased by Cobb in 2011 and 2012 with the intent of attracting like-minded people to Leith and turning it into an all-white enclave.

Bencz said he found the abandoned home on Craigslist and agreed to buy it from Cobb in July 2013, moving to Leith from Wisconsin a couple months later. Bencz said he had no affiliation with Cobb or his white supremacist views.

Cobb was sentenced in April 2014 to four years of supervised probation after pleading guilty to one felony terrorizing charge and five misdemeanor menacing charges in connection with four incidents in Leith.

Before his sentencing, Cobb sold his house in Leith and deeded his remaining lots to the city. Schock said the city had the deed to the abandoned house when it was burned, but Bencz believes there’s still a dispute over who owns the property.

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“It’s just kind of sitting there in limbo,” he said.

It was one of at least nine buildings in Leith that were demolished after Cobb left town because they were dilapidated or condemned by health officials.

“We were doing what we were told to do, because it had been condemned by Custer Health,” said Schock said, whose cell phone’s ring-back tone was Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”

Bencz, who lives with his wife and parents, said he’s been ostracized by city officials for reporting on the fire that led to the charge against Schock and for the perceived association with Cobb that he says doesn’t exist.

“We were guilty by association from day one,” he said.

Cobb now lives in Sherwood, near the Canadian border in north-central North Dakota. Last year, the nearby city of Antler purchased lots that Cobb was trying to buy to keep it out of his hands. The city has set up a GoFundMe account with the goal of raising $50,000 to offset the costs of buying the property.

Schock, one of several Leith residents who publicly criticized the state’s handling of Cobb’s case, said he’s glad his own case is over and he doesn’t plan to seek reimbursement for attorney fees from the state.

“We’re just going to let ’er go and let bygones be bygones, and hopefully everybody can move on and we can go back to living in peace,” he said. s set up a GoFundMe account with the goal of raising $50,000 to offset the costs of buying the lots.

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