Appearing for his preliminary hearing Monday, accused arsonist Spencer Norton said he has video evidence that former President Barack Obama started the fire in his fiancee's garage last month.

"That will be an interesting video to show at trial," District Judge John Grinsteiner said.

Norton pleaded not guilty to felony arson for the Nov. 7 fire at 1448 S. Third St. in Bismarck. He lived there with his fiancee, Yvette Howell, who co-owned the home with her ex-partner.

Howell is charged with misdemeanor tampering with physical evidence in the case, related to text messages and phone calls from the time of the fire.

Bismarck Police Det. Jonathen Lahr investigated the suspicious fire and said it originated from a couch in a back entry of the garage. Fire investigators also found an aerosol can burnt beyond recognition, according to Lahr, who said the fire's ignition source was transient.

"(Norton and Howell) are both known to smoke so having access to a lighter is not out of the question," he said.

A neighbor's security camera showed Norton leaving the house after a large, continuously flickering light grew in a garage window. Lahr said footage showed Norton leaving, then pausing to look back before joining Howell in a taxi to go to an emergency room, returning 90 minutes later.

Lahr added the fire was not charged as a conspiracy as Howell was not inside as the blaze occurred.

The fire burned a hole through the garage ceiling, with fire damage to the kitchen and dining area, as well as heavy smoke damage to the living room and bedroom areas. Lahr said the basement appeared to be occupied.

The home, with no running water and missing appliances, was in foreclosure at the time, said Lahr, adding that Howell filed an insurance claim in August for water damage, as well as a claim after the fire.

Interviews with Norton and Howell did not corroborate with facts of the fire, such as doors proved to be open but they claimed were closed.

An insurance company investigation corroborated police findings, Lahr said.

After Lahr stepped down, Norton told him, "I'll eat you alive at trial," before entering his not guilty plea.

Norton is set for a Jan. 18-19 trial at the Burleigh County Courthouse.

Howell is scheduled for trial in February. She also faces a small claims case regarding lapsed payments on leases for a couch and two TVs.

Norton is held at the Burleigh-Morton County Detention Center, pending $25,000 cash bond. He is charged separately for burglary in a case bound for trial next month.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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