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Ex-firefighter reaches plea deal in arson case

August 31, 2010|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD
  • James Blackford
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MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- A former volunteer firefighter accused of starting a large barn fire in which another volunteer firefighter was seriously injured faces up to 20 years in prison as part of a plea agreement reached in Berkeley County Circuit Court.

James L. Blackford III, 31, agreed to plead guilty under Alford circumstances to one count of first-degree arson and one count of causing serious injury during an arson-related crime, Berkeley County Prosecuting Attorney Pamela Games-Neely told 23rd Judicial Circuit Judge Gray Silver III in a scheduled pretrial hearing.

A third felony -- willfully, unlawfully and maliciously setting fire to lands -- would be dismissed, but Blackford would be responsible for paying all court costs and restitution related to the charge, as well as the two convictions, Games-Neely said.

Under an Alford plea, a defendant does not admit guilt, but acknowledges the state has enough evidence to gain a conviction.

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Blackford would serve two to 20 years for the first-degree arson conviction and three to 15 years for causing serious injury during an arson-related crime at the same time, Games-Neely said.

Silver scheduled a plea and sentencing hearing for Nov. 8.

Even with the state's agreement to allow Blackford to serve the prison terms concurrently, Silver would still have to decide the specific number of years for each conviction, according to Games-Neely.

Blackford told investigators that the April 7, 2009, barn fire started after he and another person ignited rubbing alcohol behind the historic structure at 1495 Williamsport Pike to heat crack cocaine in a smoking device made from a plastic bottle, according to court records.

Blackford said he knocked the device from the other man's hands and it fell to the ground, catching grass on fire, officials have said.

Blackford was suspended from Bedington Volunteer Fire Department after his arrest.

Baker Heights Volunteer Fire Department firefighter Kenneth Ayers, who attended Monday's hearing in uniform, was hospitalized after he was injured while battling the blaze. Blackford also was injured, though less seriously than Ayers, when timber from a barn wall fell on the firefighters, investigators have said.

In March 2010, Silver revoked Blackford's bail after the defendant tested positive for cocaine use. In June, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia overruled a ruling by Silver, who dismissed the first-degree arson count contained in Blackford's indictment. Silver granted the dismissal based on double-jeopardy arguments that Blackford was being prosecuted twice for the same offense.

In challenging the double-jeopardy ruling, Games-Neely argued that there are two victims in the fire: Ayers, who was seriously injured while battling the blaze, and Anna May Kelley, the owner of the barn.

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