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Courthouse blaze is Martinsburg's 11th arson this year

April 22, 2010|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD
  • Someone spray-painted this graffiti on a building next to the historic Berkeley County Courthouse. The owner of the building said the grafitti was not there Wednesday night. The courthouse was the target of an arson early Thursday.
Matthew Umstead, Staff Writer

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- A fire Thursday morning in the historic Berkeley County Courthouse in Martinsburg was deliberately set, according to Martinsburg Fire Department's chief fire investigator.

Lt. Greg Hoover said the fire, the city's 11th arson this year, was estimated to have caused about $5,000 in damage to the hunting and fishing license office on the first floor.

The courthouse at 100 W. King St. was built in 1855-56.

Firefighters responded at about 5 a.m. after the fire triggered an automatic alarm, Hoover said. The fire quickly was put out, and damage was contained to the one office, Hoover said.

A liquid accelerant was put through an office window that was broken from the outside in a narrow alley on the north side of the building, Hoover said.

Other than the fire's relatively close location to previous arsons downtown, Hoover said he had "nothing definite" to link it to the other fires.

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County Clerk John W. Small Jr. said woodwork was scorched, and he suspected a printer in the office was damaged, but the licensing records and an index for deeds and deeds of trust were protected.

On Thursday afternoon, all of the doors to the courthouse were open and fans were clearing the air, which still carried the smell of smoke.

Small said he asked County Commission President Ronald K. Collins and County Administrator Deborah Hammond to install additional lighting and surveillance cameras to monitor the alley.

Hammond said later Thursday that county facilities and information technology staff were directed to obtain costs for upgrading "security views" of the alley and enhanced lighting for the commission's review. An insurance claim was filed, Hammond said.

In the alley next to the courthouse, graffiti was painted on the Southwood Books building across from where the fire was set, bookstore owner Patti Rice said. She said the graffiti was not there Wednesday.

"That (graffiti) was done last night," she said Thursday.

"I can't imagine what the motivation would be to do that to the courthouse," Rice said. "I don't understand that at all."

Hoover said fire investigators have not noticed a pattern of graffiti while investigating the arsons. Rice said police who responded to her complaint Thursday morning told her graffiti vandalism was happening all over the city.

Ambassador Flag Co. store manager Barbara Hogue said Thursday that the South Raleigh Street business has taken the threat of arson seriously and abided by the fire department's recommendation of securing mail slots and other security measures. Four of the previous arsons have involved property along South Raleigh Street, according to the fire department.

The total estimated damage of the 10 previous arsons is between $275,000 and $300,000, Hoover has said.

A reward of as much as $2,500 for information leading to an arrest is being offered through the West Virginia Arson Hotline, Hoover said.

"We've got to get some information from the public," Hoover said.

Small said he was pleased with the thoroughness of the fire department's investigation and response to fire. An accelerant-detection dog from Loudoun County, Va., also assisted in the investigation, Small said.

Anyone with information about the fire may call the Martinsburg Police Department at 304-264-2100, Berkeley County Crime Solvers at 304-267-4999, West Virginia Arson Hotline at 800-233-FIRE or Martinsburg Fire Department at 304-264-2111.

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