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A man accused of starting a fire that heavily damaged a Bismarck apartment building and displaced residents left behind a backpack at the scene containing lighter fluid and a lighter, police allege.

Eduardo Rodriguez, 45, also had a lighter in his pants pocket when he was arrested and two small blisters on the palm of one hand, Bismarck Police Sgt. Mike Bolme said in an affidavit.

Rodriguez requested a court-appointed attorney during his initial court appearance on Thursday. His bail was set at $50,000 cash.

Police and firefighters responded to the fire at Washington Court on South Washington Street about 4 a.m. Wednesday. All of the residents of the 24-unit building managed by the Burleigh County Housing Authority made it out safely but were displaced from their homes.

Rodriguez was arrested nearby a short time later by officers who responded to an alarm at Pier One Imports. He is accused of entering the closed business by breaking an exterior window. Officers found blood evidence at the scene, and Rodriguez allegedly was bleeding from cuts when he was arrested, according to Bolme.

Rodriguez is charged with criminal mischief, criminal trespass and arson. Police allege his backpack with the lighter fluid and lighter was found in the hallway outside the third-floor apartment where the fire started, and an arson dog detected an ignitable liquid inside the apartment. Investigators found two burn patterns in a bedroom, Bolme said.

He did not indicate a possible motive. Police have said Rodriguez did not live in the building. He allegedly told police that he had accidentally started the fire by falling asleep on a couch and dropping a cigarette. Police discount the theory, saying evidence doesn't back it up and that under such conditions Rodriguez would not have survived the fire.

The building's roof collapsed and is considered by the fire department to be a total loss, with damages exceeding $10,000. The rest of the building sustained extensive smoke damage, according to Bolme.

Housing Authority Executive Director Dwight Barden on Wednesday said the building will not require a total rebuild but that it will "take some work" to make it habitable again.

Court documents list Rodriguez as being from Grand Forks. Court documents show he has an extensive criminal record in Grand Forks County, including felony convictions for terrorizing, criminal trespass, escape and theft.

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(Reach Travis Svihovec at 701-250-8260 or Travis.Svihovec@bismarcktribune.com)

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