The Fayetteville Observer, N.C.
LUMBERTON — Ten volunteer firefighters, including a former police officer and an employee at a state prison, were charged Tuesday with setting 13 fires in the Fairmont area over a two-year period, the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office said.
Eight of those arrested are Fairmont residents.
They are William Kendall Strickland, 18, of Lennon Drive; Sheilla Huggins, 19, of Tobacco Road; Jordan Emmanuel Hunt, 18, of East Whitepond Road; William Fuentes Strickland, 42, and Jordan Scott, 19, both of Lennon Drive; Kenny Caulder Jr., 19, of East Raynham Road; John Austin Huggins, 17, of Merritt Road; and Melquan Williams, 21, of Meadow Woods Circle.
Also charged are Ashley Marie Oxendine, 18, of Lepine Drive in Orrum, and Austin Seth Hunt, 23, of U.S. 301 South in Rowland.
All are volunteer firefighters with the Fairmont Rural or Orrum departments, a Sheriff’s Office release said, and face a combined 90 charges of arson, conspiracy and setting fire to grass, brush or woods, the release said.
Bail for Williams and Austin Hunt was set at $200,000 while bail for the others was set at $100,000.
Williams is a former officer with the Maxton Police Department and Hunt is a former corrections officer at the Tabor City Correctional Institution in Tabor City.
The arrests capped a yearlong investigation that involved the Sheriff’s Office, the State Bureau of Investigation, the N.C. Forestry Service and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the release said.
“We’ve had several grass fires, abandoned structures burned and woods fires in the last 18 months,” Sealey told The Fayetteville Observer. “We started an investigation on it and about six months ago, arson investigators developed information.”
The fires were set in the areas of Eldorado, Collins Mill, Oakton Church, Atkinson, Raynham, Reva, Mitchell, Davis, Happy Hill, Marion Stage and Pleasant Hope roads; N.C. 130; and Main Street in Fairmont.
No injuries were reported in any of the fires.
State Insurance Commissioner/Fire Marshal Mike Causey and Chief State Fire Marshal Brian Taylor held a brief news conference in Raleigh on Tuesday afternoon to address the arrests.
“This investigation is not about any particular fire departments,” Causey said. “It’s an investigation involving individuals.”
The status of the Fairmont Rural and Orrum departments is not affected, Taylor said.
“There are no issues with the fire departments involved. They’re still functioning. They’re certified and there are no coverage issues in Robeson County.”
There are 52,000 firefighters in North Carolina, Causey said, and about 70 percent of those are volunteers.
It’s not unusual to see firefighters charged with setting fires, Taylor said, but it is unusual to see so many at one time.
“What’s unique about this is the number of individuals involved. Generally, you see this nationally with maybe two involved, but not 10.
“It’s disturbing, but it does happen,” Taylor said.
Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt agreed.
“Unfortunately, it’s a relatively common occurrence with firefighters,” Britt said.
In 2012, Austin Hunt was charged with setting six fires to woodlands and grasslands over a two-year period while he was a volunteer firefighter in Robeson County at the Rowland and, later, Raynham-McDonald fire departments.
“He was given a deferred prosecution,” Britt said.
Hunt was required to do community service and stay out of trouble with law enforcement for a period of time — Britt wasn’t sure how long.
The charge was later expunged from Hunt’s record, Britt said.
Asked if he knew why the fires were set, Britt said he couldn’t comment on that, citing the ongoing investigation.
Sealey said he doesn’t know what the motive was.
“I’m not saying these people aren’t great,” Sealey said. “I know most of them and they’re good people.
“But I don’t understand why.”
Staff writer Nancy McCleary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 486-3568.
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