4 accused of arson in Franklin County haystack fires

Kristin M. Kraemer, Tri-City HeraldApril 4, 2014 

Four people accused of using lighters and accelerant to torch haystacks, pasture land and an abandoned structure in north Franklin County face May 21 trials.

Arthur R. Johnson, Teresa A.M. Farris, Nicole M. Monk and Eli J. Johnson all have pleaded innocent in Franklin County Superior Court for their alleged roles in the March fires.

The four suspects were arrested March 24 after a Franklin County fire official reported seeing a suspicious SUV driving away from the scene of a blaze that crews were fighting. A similar red SUV had been seen leaving multiple fires two days earlier.

According to court documents, Franklin County sheriff's Deputy George Rapp was at the Connell Police Department with police Sgt. Brad Quinton when they got the call about another fire and possible suspects in the area.

The two stopped the Ford Explorer on Blanton Road and, as Rapp was walking up to talk with the occupants, saw through the windows a bottle of lighter fluid sitting on tools and miscellaneous items in the back, documents said. Rapp also reported seeing a 12-inch lighter on the seat between the two rear passengers.

Farris, the front seat passenger, allegedly told Rapp the group had been at a barbecue on Blanton and Pepiot roads, but she couldn't say exactly where or give a name.

Another passenger agreed to let Rapp look at the bottom of his shoes and took one off so he could check it out closer, court documents said.

Rapp got the owner's permission to take a picture of the sole, then shared it with sheriff's Cpl. Josh Bunten, who confirmed it was a positive match to prints from a March 23 fire on Moon Road, documents said. Those prints reportedly led from the road to the point of ignition on a haystack, and all around it, possibly to spray accelerant.

Back at the sheriff's office, Rapp interviewed Arthur Johnson. The suspect admitted to starting or aiding in numerous fires in a few days, court documents said.

Rapp said the other suspects all gave similar admissions, or said they were at least at the locations where fires were started, during their own interviews with deputies or detectives, documents said.

The fires include a haystack March 22 near Eltopia West and Hooper roads, another that same day near Moon and Paradise roads, the abandoned structure March 23 on Joyce and Blanton roads and the haystack at Blanton and Pepiot.

Arthur Johnson, 36, is in custody on $20,000 for three counts of second-degree arson.

Deputy Prosecutor Frank Jenny recently told the court that Arthur Johnson, during his voluntary statement to law enforcement, was "trying to take the entire responsibility" for setting the fires, but the other suspects have more responsibility than he claims.

They're also being looked at for five arson fires in Grant County and four in Adams County, all involving haystacks, Jenny said. In all, the damage exceeds hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.

Arthur Johnson was a suspect in a series of fires a year ago but there was not enough evidence to charge him, said the prosecutor. He argued to keep Johnson locked up, saying the suspect "clearly is a danger to the community" and could be a flight risk if he is looking at charges in the other two counties.

Defense attorney Albert Lin told the court that his client has connections to the area and has been in Othello for 11/2 years, preceded by two years in the Tri-Cities.

"I certainly understand the gravity of what's involved here," Lin said, but Johnson is presumed innocent during the court process despite any statements he might have previously made.

Farris, 33, also faces three counts of second-degree arson. The Othello woman remains in Franklin County jail on $25,000 bail.

Monk, 31, and Eli Johnson, 24, each have one count of second-degree arson. The two are from Eltopia.

Monk's bail is set at $5,000, while Eli Johnson's is $1,000.

Eli Johnson's attorney, Christine Bennett, asked to have him released during a court appearance, saying he has no prior felonies and his dad should be able to bring him to future hearings. However, Judge Vic VanderSchoor said he felt some bail was appropriate.

It is believed there is no connection between these cases and the Halloween night fires in north Franklin County.

In that case, Burt Ray Johnson caused extensive damage when he torched several large haystacks and an open field using flammable liquids. Three of the haystacks were burned to the ground.

Burt Ray Johnson of Othello was sentenced in January to three months in jail after pleading guilty to second-degree arson.

He said he blacked out from excessive drinking and could not remember starting the fires, but his muddy shoes matched prints at one of the scenes and his shirt had burn marks on it.

-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; kkraemer@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer

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