Local, state and federal law enforcement officials are investigating what appears to be another arson case involving a judicial building in Lancaster, S.C.
A fire early this morning heavily damaged the Solicitor's office, less than 75 feet from the 180-year-old county courthouse that was torched by an arsonist Monday.
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Police and fire officials said the fire's cause is suspicious.
“The office is very small,” Lancaster fire Chief Chris Nunnery told WCNC-TV, the Observer's news partner. “It appears it started in the main lobby area of one office and extended to the other.”
Officials said at a noon news conference that the exact cause of the early morning fire had not been determined, but progress is being made, and investigators have interviewed numerous witnesses. Officials read from a written statement and would not answer specific questions about the investigation. Another news conference has been scheduled for 4 p.m. today.
Capt. Harlean Howard of the Lancaster Police Department said the person responsible for the fire “has demonstrated his ability to be very dangerous” and the public should be extremely careful.
Howard said that similar cases indicate that the person responsible for such a fire would be unlikely to confide his guilt but would closely follow the investigation in the media and in conversations with friends and family.
She said he may make comments like: “What do they expect – they didn't have any alarm systems”; “It was probably just some kids”; “The court is corrupt, bias(ed), etc.”
She said that in cases like this, there is likely someone close to the offender that might suspect their family member or friend is the suspect, but it might be difficult to come forward.
“They may be the only person in a position to help before another fire is started and possibly some innocent person is harmed or even killed,” Howard said.
The one-story brick, West Dunlap Street office of Solicitor Doug Barfield and offices of several other lawyers were gutted, according to fire investigators. Despite the fire, criminal court was held again today in a municipal building.
Nunnery said agents from the State Bureau of Investigation and the federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agency are joining local investigators in trying to determine a cause. The scene Wednesday in front of the damaged courthouse had changed much from Monday – a two-block area surrounding the courthouse was cordoned off and the number of law enforcement officials had nearly doubled. A portable command center has been set up by the courthouse.
“There's no telling who could have started fires like this,” said Lancaster resident Tom Blumer after viewing the downtown area Wednesday morning. “It could be someone trying to destroy court papers, or just some crazy person with a grudge.”
The fire was reported by a passerby at 4:18 a.m. Nunnery said firefighters arrived at the scene within two minutes and had the blaze extinguished in 20 minutes. But the damage had been done.
In South Carolina, the solicitor serves as district attorney. Police told WCNC that they have patrolled the area regularly since Monday's courthouse fire, and that a patrol car was in the area only 15 minutes before the blaze broke out this morning.
The courthouse, built in 1828, was heavily damaged by a blaze that authorities say was set. The fire destroyed most of the building's roof and part of the second story. However, county officials said that the damage can be repaired, and that a number of historical records on the bottom floor of the building were saved.
Anyone with any information about these fires, should call the South Carolina Arson Hotline at 1-800-92ARSON or Crime Stoppers at 1-888-559-TIPS. A reward has been established for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of the person(s) responsible.