Tenn. Fire Chief, Firefighters Charged wtih Arson

October 26, 2006

Neighbors and police officers have known for years that someone was setting a rash of fires in the small town of Tiptonville, Tenn., destroying buildings and sheds.

But it was a shock to learn that the people responsible for putting out fires are now charged with setting them in the first place.

The city’s fire chief and three volunteer firefighters, including the chief’s grandson, appeared in court this week on arson charges stemming from a string of fires over the past two years.

The men, all members of Tiptonville Volunteer Fire Department, were arrested Monday.

All four were in the Lake County jail Tuesday after a judge set bond at $100,000 for Fire Chief James Blackburn and $25,000 or more each for the others.

“I just hate that it happened in my town,” said Police Chief Norman Rhodes, who went to school with Blackburn. “These are people that children look up to.”

The complaint lists 10 structures that burned from August 2004 to June 2006 — two of them located within 150 yards of Blackburn’s own home.

All the buildings were vacant when they were set on fire, and no one was hurt.

But the police chief and other people who live in Tiptonville say there have been many other suspicious fires in Lake County that no one has been charged with setting.

“Everybody knew that we had a firebug for a couple of years,” said Johnny Whitson, who owns an auto body shop near where two buildings burned.

“It was mostly just vacant homes, old buildings and stuff like that. It wasn’t anything anybody was living in.”

Blackburn, who is also superintendent of the city water plant, was charged with 10 counts of arson. His grandson, Brandon Blackburn, faces two counts of arson; firefighter Floyd Joe Kilburn was charged with four counts; and firefighter Chris Burrus was charged with two counts.

The court appointed lawyers for all four men. Two of the attorneys declined to comment on the charges and the other two did not return calls Tuesday afternoon. The men are scheduled to appear in court Monday morning.

Rhodes said the investigation had been going on for about two years. “We’ve been pretty sure who it was for about the last year,” he said.

Rhodes didn’t give a motive for the arsons beyond saying the suspects had formed a clique. “I don’t know why they did it. I wish I did know. I don’t think anybody has an explanation.”

Mary Young lives next door to the property where a house was destroyed in August. She said it caught fire three times before it was destroyed, and each time the Tiptonville Fire Department responded. A trailer next door also burned.

“They did a good job,” said Young, who was surprised to hear the fire chief was arrested. “They stayed with that trailer until it was all out and there was no more smoke.”

Robert Dougherty said he moved next door to the fire chief about six months ago and has been amazed by the number of fires in the area.

Across the street from his house is the rubble of a burned house, and there is a burned shed in a neighbor’s back yard. Neither fire was listed in the charges.

“The house burned twice; the shed burned three times,” Dougherty said.

Rhodes said he called on the state for help with the arson investigation, and James Blackburn, as fire chief, knew about the probe.

“He was actually giving me static about calling in bomb and arson investigators _ said that was his job,” Rhodes said.

Tiptonville, 90 miles northeast of Memphis, has about 2,400 residents.

“There have been quite a few people who have been upset because this has been going on. They haven’t been able to sleep at night,” state bomb and arson investigator Ron Powers said.

Phil Bivens, district attorney general for Lake County, said if convicted the firefighters could face a minimum of three years to a maximum of 15 in prison.

“One of the factors the court will look at is that they are in a position of public trust as firemen,” Bivens said.

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