Displaced Columbia Heights barber given probation for setting fire at Shoreview barbershop

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A displaced Columbia Heights barber charged with setting a fire inside the Shoreview barbershop where he’d just started working has been put on probation and ordered to pay the shop’s owner for the damage.

Dennis Ambrose Manning was sentenced Friday by Ramsey County District Judge Andrew Gordon under a March plea deal that included the 55-year-old admitting to an added charge of negligent fire, a gross misdemeanor.

Dennis Ambrose Manning (Courtesy of the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office)

In turn, prosecutors agreed to dismiss first- and second-degree arson felony charges in connection with the Nov. 29 fire at Pauly Ray’s Sports Barbershop, which is in a strip mall at Highway 96 and Lexington Avenue.

Manning’s plea deal also includes a stay of adjudication, meaning if he successfully completes two years probation the charge will be dismissed and he won’t have the conviction on his criminal record. He must pay $5,475 in restitution to Paul Vandeveer, owner of Pauly Ray’s.

Vandeveer told investigators he believed Manning started the blaze as a way to get him to open a new location with him elsewhere.

For 22 years, Manning had run his own shop, Sportsmen’s Barbers in Columbia Heights, before the owner of the building forced him out in November after finding another tenant.

Manning’s customers set up a GoFundMe page for him after word spread that he would be displaced. The effort, which drew local media attention, raised about $8,400 for Manning to set up shop in another location.

In the meantime, Manning called up Vandeveer, who rented a chair from Manning at Sportsmen’s for four years before he opened Pauly Ray’s in 2017. Vandeveer offered Manning a chair to rent at his shop, going so far as to let him set up a few of his arcade games and put a small Sportsmen’s sign outside.

He said he lit a string

Ramsey County sheriff’s deputies and firefighters were sent to Pauly Ray’s just before 7 p.m. Nov. 29 on a report of a fire inside the closed business. Manning had been working from the shop for just two days.

Firefighters forced their way into the barbershop, which was fully engulfed in smoke.

The shop’s floors were flooded with water from the sprinkler system, which put out the fire. Firefighters determined the fire started in the northeast part of the shop near a video game area.

According to the criminal complaint, surveillance video showed Manning inside the barbershop just before 6:30 p.m. He pulled a lighter from his pocket. He bent down and sparked the lighter, igniting a cloth on top of an arcade console, the complaint says.

Manning turned around and walked to an exit, looking behind him as he left the shop. The fire burned continuously and accelerated in intensity, with embers from the lit cloth falling onto chairs underneath the arcade console and igniting them as well.

A photo on a GoFundMe page set up in November 2023 shows Dennis Manning outside Sportsmen’s Barbers, his now-shuttered Columbia Heights business. Friends of Manning had set up the page in an effort to raise money for Manning to relocate the barbershop elsewhere. (Courtesy of GoFundMe)

Surveillance video then showed that mall patrons congregating at the barbershop doors leading into the mall. Several tried to open the doors, but they were locked.

Just before 8 p.m., a sheriff’s deputy saw Manning standing in a doorway and on his phone, either recording the scene or speaking to someone on FaceTime.

Manning was arrested, and denied starting the fire. He had a red lighter on him. While in the back of a squad car, he said he didn’t have a lighter and didn’t start anything on fire. He then said, “How would a lighter start them games on fire?” the complaint says. “Doesn’t make sense. Those are my games.”

Manning later said, “There’s no footage of me having a lighter to start anything on fire. It’s ludicrous.” He then changed his story and said, “Oh, you know what? I did take the lighter and lit a string on a cloth that was hanging on the game. That was it. I did not start the fire. And it fell on the chair. I did not start the fire.”

Wanted to move

Manning agreed to speak to an investigator. He said Vandeveer left the shop about five minutes before he did. Manning denied intentionally setting the fire, claiming he saw a string hanging down from a tablecloth by the arcade games and took out a lighter to burn it. He said he thought he patted the cloth down after burning the string to prevent a fire from starting, the complaint says.

Manning said he had no reason to burn down the barbershop and noted how he and Vandeveer had items worth thousands of dollars inside. When asked why he didn’t grab one of the several scissors available to cut the string, Manning said he was exhausted and just wanted to remove the string quickly, so he used his lighter, the complaint says.

Manning said that he and Vandeveer planned to move the barbershop to a spot in Columbia Heights off Central Avenue.

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Meanwhile, Vandeveer told deputies that Manning had been repeatedly asking him about opening a shop in Columbia Heights with him. He said he had no intention of closing his shop and moving, and that he believed Manning set the fire to close the business so he would join him at the new spot, the complaint says.

Before the plea deal, Manning’s attorney filed in court a list of seven prospective witnesses for a trial and summaries of phone interviews with them by a hired investigator. The seven, which included Manning’s son, a former employee and a former customer who is also an Osseo police officer, all said Manning was a smoker and that they had seen him use his lighter to remove a strand of string at his Columbia Heights shop.

The criminal complaint notes that Vandeveer told deputies, when asked, that he’d never seen Manning burn a string in the four years he worked with him at his old shop.

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