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Arkansas County fire ruled arson

ATF concludes ruinous blaze at courthouse annex deliberate by John Worthen | October 21, 2014 at 4:47 a.m.

Investigators with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have determined that a fire last month at an Arkansas County courthouse annex building in Stuttgart was intentionally set.

Grover Crossland, resident agent in charge of the bureau's Little Rock field office, said no suspects have been found. But an investigation is continuing in Arkansas County, where agents are conducting interviews and searching for additional clues.

Crossland said anyone arrested in the blaze will likely face federal arson charges.

Bureau officials joined the investigation several weeks ago at the request of the state fire marshal's office, Crossland said. Reports from an initial investigation by a fire marshal in Arkansas County suggested that the fire was electrical, but further evidence gathered at the scene by federal agents pointed to arson, he said.

Crossland said he couldn't elaborate on the bureau's findings, citing the investigation. Officials with the state fire marshal's office and the Arkansas County sheriff's office are assisting in the investigation.

County Judge Sonny Cox said that the bureau's finding has hit him and other Arkansas County officials hard.

"It's sad enough that the building burned down, but to learn it was deliberate just makes you really angry," Cox said. "When you think someone did it on purpose and what effect this has had on us. It really has hurt everyone in the county that has to do business with us."

Many Stuttgart residents had similar reactions.

James Coleman compared burning down the annex to someone burning down his own home.

"It's my building, it's my neighbor's building, it belongs to all of us," Coleman said. "And it just makes me so mad to think about someone having the gall to do something like this. It just doesn't make any sense."

The fire began in the early hours of Sept. 23 and quickly swept through the 1918 structure, destroying it. There were no injuries reported.

Since 1992, the building on South College Street had housed several county offices, including those of sheriff, assessor, emergency management, collector, county judge, sanitation, 911 data center and the Arkansas State Police.

Cox said that because Arkansas County has two county seats -- one in Stuttgart, the other in DeWitt -- the fire wasn't "a total disaster for county government," adding that vital records were stored on backup disks at the DeWitt courthouse.

Offices formerly in the annex building in Stuttgart have temporarily moved to the adjacent circuit courthouse basement. Cox said conditions are cramped, but county business is still being conducted.

He said computers that recorded the county's 911 calls have been replaced and are working, but it will be several more days before the arrival of devices that allow call mapping, which plots individual 911 calls on a virtual map.

The county's 911 calls are handled by the Stuttgart Police Department.

Cox said he is already talking with an architect about plans for a new annex, which he hopes can be built on the footprint of the old one. The county will have $2.5 million in insurance funds to rebuild the annex, the county judge said.

"Our goal is to have a two-story building with two safe rooms that is modern and that will fulfill our needs for as long as the old one did," Cox said. "It will take some time, but we will get there."

Arson was also the cause of an April 2012 fire in Rison that destroyed a building housing City Hall and the Police Department. Investigators there still have not made an arrest in the case. The structure was rebuilt several months later.

State Desk on 10/21/2014

Print Headline: Arkansas County fire ruled arson

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