An arsonist's torching of a second criminal justice building in the center of town in less than 72 hours has left some residents jumpy and others scratching their heads.
Local, state and federal law enforcement officials have swarmed over this former mill town about 40miles south of Charlotte – cordoning off several downtown blocks, asking downtown drivers to show ID, and setting up a mobile command center beside the damaged courthouse.
Thursday's fire was reported at 4:14a.m. – only about 15 minutes after a patrol car passed the area – and heavily damaged the solicitor's offices. The front door is less than 75feet from the 180-year-old county courthouse that burned Monday. In South Carolina, the solicitor serves as district attorney.
Lancaster Fire Chief Chris Nunnery said the fire appeared to start in the main lobby area of one office and extended to the other. Officials said the cause of the fire had not yet been determined, but progress is being made, and investigators have interviewed numerous witnesses.
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What investigators revealed Thursday left more questions for residents.
Marc Culler, owner of Leigh-Anne's restaurant about three blocks from the courthouse, said this week's fires have been the main topic of conversation at his eatery. He said the fires targeted at justice centers more closely resemble a John Grisham novel than the town he knows.
“Some nut trying to burn down the courthouse was bad enough, but this fire today, this really changes things,” said Culler, whose waitress called in the courthouse fire on her way to work. “It looks like some kind of vendetta against our judicial system. And that's bad.”
Lancaster attorney Mandy Powers Norrell., who has argued many cases in the town's 1828 courthouse, said the events this week moved from “arson to terrorism.”
“The scary thing is that this arsonist was so brazen and bold as to go straight back to the site of the original fire at the courthouse,” she said, “and set another fire directly across the street.”
The fire at the solicitor's office is the fifth suspicious fire in Lancaster in the past month, but officials have not said whether they were related. Officials would not answer specific questions about the investigation at a Thursday news conference.
Capt. Harlean Howard of the Lancaster Police Department said the arsonist “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 a family member or a friend, but that it might be difficult to come forward.
“They may be the only person in a position to help before another fire is started,” Howard said.
The one-story brick offices on West Dunlap Street of Solicitor Doug Barfield and several other lawyers were gutted, according to fire investigators.
Despite the fire, criminal court was scheduled to be held again today in a Lancaster municipal building.
Agents from the State Law Enforcement Division and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are joining local investigators in trying to determine a cause.
Officials said firefighters arrived at the scene within two minutes and had the blaze extinguished in 20 minutes. But the damage had been done.
Officials say the courthouse, designed by the architect of the Washington Monument, can likely be rebuilt. That fire destroyed most of the building's roof and part of the second story.
Lancaster Mayor Joe Shaw says someone tossed a Molotov cocktail at the courthouse last year, but it caused little damage.
“I'd hate to think about an arsonist out there targeting our courthouse and legal offices, but it sure looks that way,” said Shaw, who has been mayor for nearly three decades.
“I hope and pray we catch this fellow pretty soon.”
After viewing the downtown area Thursday morning, Lancaster resident Tom Blumer said: “There's no telling who could have started fires like this.
“It could be someone trying to destroy court papers,” he said, “or just some crazy person with a grudge.”