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Martinsburg man to stand trial in arson

June 01, 2009|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- A West Virginia state fire marshal testified Monday in a preliminary hearing that he is not convinced a second man was involved in a fire that destroyed a large barn and severely injured a Berkeley County firefighter.

Berkeley County Magistrate JoAnn Overington found probable cause against James L. Blackford III to forward the case to circuit court for trial.

Blackford, 30, of 167 Laing Drive in Martinsburg, is charged with three felony counts, including first-degree arson, setting fire on lands and causing injury during an arson-related crime. He was a member of the Bedington Volunteer Fire Department.

Overington denied defense attorney Brett Basham's request to reduce Blackford's bond to $50,000 from $200,000. Berkeley County Assistant Prosecutor Richard Stephens argued the higher bond was appropriate considering the severity of the charges and that a firefighter was injured.

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Investigators testified that Blackford ran to the station when the barn that sat about 100 yards from the Bedington Volunteer Fire Department station caught fire, but he never turned in an alarm. A member of the fire department for three years, he responded to the fire with fellow firefighters.

The alarm was called in by a passing motorist.

Kenneth Ayers, a member of the Baker Heights Volunteer Fire Department, suffered injuries to his face and upper body when a timber collapsed and fell on him while he was fighting the fire. He was in court Monday with his left arm in a cast. 

Blackford was with Ayers when the timber fell and he suffered minor injuries, according to court records.

Ayers was not allowed to testify on the issue of Blackford's request for a bond reduction.

Investigators testified that Blackford told them several versions of what happened April 7, the day of the fire.

Blackford told investigators a man named "Brian," whose last name he didn't know, was burning alcohol in a cut-down plastic soda bottle in an attempt to manufacture crack cocaine, according to testimony. Blackford said he accidently bumped the man's arm, causing him to drop the bottle in the grass, which then caught fire.

Blackford told investigators he tried unsuccessfully to stomp out the fire before it spread to the barn.

Investigators also testified Blackford told them he saw an all-terrain vehicle leaving the area at the time of the fire. They said witnesses at the scene could not corroborate Blackford's claim about the ATV.

One investigator, who testified he did not know the whereabouts of the man Blackford referred to as Brian, said, "I'm not convinced there is a Brian."

No evidence was found in the rubble that indicated anyone was manufacturing crack cocaine, according to testimony.

Blackford, who entered court in shackles and chains and dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, was led out the same way after the hearing.

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