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Text message photo leads to arson charge

A text message with a picture of a house on fire was used as evidence to charge two men with arson.

In the early morning hours of Jan. 16, fire destroyed an unoccupied home owned by Ronnie and Deanna Wieczorek, four miles west of Mount Vernon.

"When the fire department arrived, the house was engulfed at that time," Aurora County State's Attorney John Steele said Thursday in an interview with The Daily Republic

Brandon Mehlbrech, 27, of Mitchell, and Allen Antaya, 20, of Plankinton, are charged with first-degree arson, which carries a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison and a $50,000 fine.

The men are accused of intentionally burning the house.

The state fire marshal could not determine a point of origin for the fire, Steele said. It was deemed suspicious, but could not immediately be ruled as arson.

On Feb. 1, Jeremy Johnson approached the Mitchell Police Division to report a possible criminal connection with the fire -- a picture of a house on fire sent to him via text message with an accompanying message saying, "what we do lol," according to court documents. Johnson said Mehlbrech sent him the picture, court documents say.

Mehlbrech has been arrested and is being held in the Davison County Jail. An arrest warrant has been issued for Antaya, but he has not been arrested, court documents say.

Law enforcement seized Antaya's cell phone during an interview on Feb. 11 stemming from Johnson's tip and found a video on the phone of haybales burning next to a farm house. Further investigation showed Wieczorek's house had haybales next to it the night of the fire, according to court documents.

In an interview with Aurora County Sheriff's Deputy Roman Briggs, Johnson said Antaya also showed him a video of Antaya riding a tractor the same night of the house fire. Johnson said he viewed the video on Antaya's phone, according to court documents.

On Feb. 11, Deputy Briggs interviewed Levi Grosz, who reported Mehlbrech and Antaya came to his residence on Jan. 16 and told him they stole tractors, got them stuck in a slough and set a house on fire. Grosz said two others witnessed this conversation -- Spencer Kelly and Lindsey Totten, according to court documents.

Mehlbrech and Antaya then offered to take Grosz and Dillon Bullock to show them the tractors and the burned house, which they told Grosz and Bullock is where they took the tractors from.

Grosz also told law enforcement he allowed Mehlbrech to keep items at Grosz's residence. Those items included a battery charger and propane tank, which Mehlbrech told Grosz he stole from the scene of the fire, according to court documents.

Mehlbrech picked up the items on Feb. 8 and moved them to his girlfriend home in Freeman. When law enforcement executed a search warrant on the residence, they found the propane tank and battery charger.

Law enforcement contacted Mehlbrech's girlfriend, got Mehlbrech's number and spoke with Mehlbrech at his girlfriend's home. Mehlbrech went willingly with Aurora County Sheriff David Fink to the Freeman Police Department for an interview regarding the fire.

Mehlbrech denied having any involvement in the fire, but said he and Antaya had driven around Letcher the evening of Jan. 16, the same night as the fire. Mehlbrech and Antaya got their vehicle stuck, so they used a tractor, owned by the city of Letcher, without permission to pull out the vehicle, according to court documents. He said they put the tractor back where they found it.

Sheriff Fink interviewed Antaya earlier the same day that Mehlbrech was interviewed. Antaya denied involvement in the fire and denied using a tractor. Antaya told Fink that he and Mehlbrech had driven in the area, but Mehlbrech alone took a city of Letcher tractor to pull out his vehicle and then put the tractor back, according to court documents.

Antaya and Mehlbrech each are also charged with unauthorized operation of a motor vehicle, which carries a maximum penalty of one year in county jail and a $2,000 fine. They are also charged with two counts of petty theft in the second degree, which carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $500.