Fire chief, 3 volunteers at Tenn. fire department charged with setting vacant buildings ablaze

Tuesday, October 24th 2006, 9:30 pm
By: News On 6

TIPTONVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- The city's fire chief and three volunteer firefighters, including the chief's grandson, were charged Tuesday with setting a string of fires in vacant buildings over the past two years.

The men, all members of the Tiptonville Volunteer Fire Department, were arrested Monday. No one was hurt in the blazes they were accused of starting.

All four men 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.

Neighbors were aware someone was setting fires, but they were shocked when the firefighters were charged.

"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.

Norman Rhodes, police chief in this town of 2,400 people about 90 miles northeast of Memphis, did not give a motive.

"I don't think anybody has an explanation," Rhodes said.

The charges list 10 structures that were burned from August 2004 to June 2006 -- several within 150 yards of Blackburn's home.

A judge appointed lawyers for all four men. Two attorneys declined to comment, and the others did not return calls Tuesday afternoon.

The men are scheduled to appear in court Monday for arraignment.

Police began investigating shortly after the fires began and have been "pretty sure" about the suspects for the past year, Rhodes said.

The police chief said he called on the state for help with the arson investigation, and that 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.

Charged in the investigation were Blackburn, who is also superintendent of the city water plant; his firefighter grandson, Brandon Blackburn; and firefighters Floyd Joe Kilburn and Chris Burrus.

But the police chief and other Tiptonville residents said there have been many other suspicious fires that no one has been charged with setting.

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 is the rubble of a burned house, and a burned shed sits in a neighbor's back yard. Neither fire is listed in the charges.

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

Phil Bivens, district attorney general for Lake County, said if convicted the firefighters could receive three to 15 years 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.

"I just hate that it happened in my town," said Rhodes, adding that he attended school with Blackburn. "These are people that children look up to."