After more than three years on the job, LaFayette Police Chief Tommy Freeman finally admits the city might have a slight problem with arson.

In last week’s Walker County Messenger, Freeman said intentionally set fires have been “an ongoing problem” since before he took office in 2007, and so far this year at least ten buildings have been intentionally burned to the ground. Freeman, who as Public Safety Director also oversees the city fire department, indicated the LPD would finally get serious about finding the perpetrator (or perpetrators) of these crimes and reminded Messenger readers of a $10,000 reward available to anyone who rats the arsonist out.

The LPD, Walker Sheriff’s Office, and Georgia Arson Control Board (a panel of insurance companies and local law enforcement) began working together three years ago to “educate” the community about the dangers of arson fires, but that effort was restricted to putting a few yard signs with an arson tipline phone number in front of Linwood homes that had already burned. Fire investigations were cursory, if conducted at all, and apparently didn’t involve state law enforcement until now.

That Messenger article could have been titled “Police Chief Develops Clue” as the arson problem in LaFayette hasn’t ever been much of a secret, with many wondering for years why the LPD hadn’t done anything serious about it before this point. It’s not pure incompetence: Previous arson investigations produced results quickly, as evidenced by two junior firebugs who were found, arrested, and sentenced within a two-week period of 2008. But in that case the building burned was a city utility office filled with rec department tractors and equipment. So far this series of arsons has cost the city nothing except for the time and effort involved in putting out the fires.

In fact, some might speculate that the fires have all been a net benefit for the city since every last one has involved a neglected, unoccupied structure, an eyesore taking up space that might be better used for something else. Those same persons would also consider it a benefit that every burned home, up until last month, was been located west of the railroad tracks, in Linwood or traditionally-black neighborhoods off Culberson Ave.

As long as the crimes only involved abandoned homes in neighborhoods where “those people” live, it likely wasn’t worth the LPD’s time or trouble to conduct a thorough investigation. But all that changed in May.

Freeman’s shift in attention is attributed to the ten fires set so far in 2010, but that’s not a dramatic increase over what we’ve observed during the last two years. There’s been little change in the quantity of arsons, but the location of said conflagrations has shifted into new territory. With abandoned Linwood homes now in short supply, the arsonist moved east on May 3rd to light up an abandoned and partially-burned house on First Ave behind the old high school, within sight and smell of councilman Bill Craig’s home. Another fire during the next week took out an empty residence on the corner of West Indiana and Lee, only blocks away from respectable homes on Main Street and North Duke.

So, as WQCH reported on June 1st:

And that, my friends, means the chief must finally pretend to care about this. Perhaps not enough to do anything yet, but to at least make statements to the media indicating that he’s on top of things. If the arsonist ever targets an empty rental home owned by a member of city leadership, or city property, or the abandoned home three doors down from the chief’s own house, we can all rest assured the LPD will take action and make an arrest – even if the person arrested wasn’t involved.

Finding the actual arsonist isn’t that difficult; LU investigators tracked him down by asking a few Linwood teens who sets all the fires in their neighborhood. Everyone asked universally identified the same two suspects working together, teen boys who break into abandoned homes, steal everything of value for drug money, and then light the residences on fire to cover their tracks. One of the boys named was actually arrested by the LPD earlier this year for burglarizing an abandoned Linwood home (he was arrested before any fire was set there), but was quickly released without being connected to the rash of fires. This particular youth, notorious for being involved with drugs and at least one sexual assault, also lives on the same street where one of the first fires was set in 2007.

So far, however, Chief Freeman and the rest of LaFayette’s Finest have been unable to hook two clues together and arrest this teen or anyone else for a plague of arsons that has claimed by conservative estimate at LEAST twenty buildings in the last three years. The number of homes burned apparently hasn’t risen high enough to draw the chief’s attention from the mystery of the 18th hole, or to even demand as much time and effort as the LPD has invested into keeping gas-engined boats off Queen City Lake or to finding out who’s behind this Web site.

LaFayette’s residents continually debate and discuss the city’s spending priorities, political maneuvering, and business struggles; those issues all have two or more sides and remain legitimately worthy of debate. But there should be absolutely NO debate needed about police priorities. When citizens living in different parts of the same town are treated differently by the officers called to protect them, it goes beyond a political or budgetary issue and begins to challenge the very notion of all people being equal in the eyes of the law.

There can be no security, no economic strength, no sense of community in LaFayette until every resident, regardless of their economic situation or neighborhood, knows crimes against their property or person will be taken seriously and fully investigated. Many of the burned buildings were empty rental houses, and renters don’t pay property tax, but the building’s owners all do – as do the rest of us who own property here. And everyone, property owner or not, must deal with the consequences of these drug-fueled thefts and arsons. But only some residents are given fair treatment by a police department and body of leadership who regard certain citizens as being lesser than others. We who foot the bills and provide resources to the city and its law enforcement arm must demand fair treatment of every citizen, demand a new police chief who can bring in a new attitude of concern, and (if those demands aren’t met) a new council and mayor willing to make those changes happen.

While we have no direct evidence and everything reported here has been relayed through third-party sources, this article should give the LPD a Chance to catch the arsonist and begin to restore security to every neighborhood in LaFayette the way it should. If the LPD officers who regularly read this blog (we’re talking to you, Stacey Meeks) somehow use this information to make an arrest, we’re requesting that the reward money go to one of our favorite charities.

If you happen to have additional information about any arson in LaFayette or elsewhere in Walker County, skip local law enforcement and report it directly to the Georgia Arson hotline at 1 800 282 5804 or www.georgiaarsoncontrol.com.

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45 comments so far

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  1. Very good article. I am quite curious as to who this arsonist is. Probably a relative of Brian’s :P

  2. We linked to a news report with his name in it, and also hid a first name somewhere in the post. It’s like a treasure hunt, find the name and (hopefully) get ten grand.

    — The LaFayette Underground

  3. The Public Safety department should be ashemed of itself for allowing this to go on for so long. It may be true that nobody was hurt, but the law was broken each time a house was torched.

    But do you think we’ll hear an apology from anyone for the way they have handled this matter? Not a Chance.

  4. The city council OK’d the sale of beer and wine in resturants by a 3 to 1 vote. It’s about time.

  5. You spelled Det. Meeks’ name wrong.
    It’s got an “e.” S-T-A-C-E-Y.
    I’m sure it was an oversight.

  6. Nice treaseure hunt for the name. As long as someone remembers the correct capitolization for name they may just have a chance.

  7. The arson investigations have not just started as you stated LU. The police department and the state arson dept. have investigated all these fires. Your consistent spinning of events to make it look like the city is always doing something wrong may sway the opinions of follower types but independent thinkers can see through your smoke and words to the true reason that you do this. GARBAGE CANS !! get over it lol

  8. Informed, can you explain why it took over three years to come public with this? Is it just a coincidence that as the arsonist moves into another area, suddenly we get informed?

  9. Dear LU –
    Although your writing makes me cringe a little bit, I think it comes from a good place and a good heart. Obviously, your investigation of the mission in West LaFayette was even-handed and you gave credit where it was due to some fine people. I don’t think your intentions are only to smear people and incite class warfare, even though your knocks on 1st Baptist Church and golfers might lead one to believe the contrary. However, I do think you are fighting a losing battle. LaFayette is headed the way of Trion. It has been headed that way for many years. It’s a nice town. I miss it, sometimes. But, it’s never going to be a place that an entire generation of young professionals can come back to. There is only room for a few, and frankly, they’re mostly paid by the government. Maybe a couple of lawyers, a couple of doctors, a couple of accountants can make it. Otherwise, folks will have to go somewhere else where there is opportunity. Beer and wine by the glass is too little, too late.

  10. It’s NEVER too late for a cold beer or a good glass of wine.

  11. We don’t mention the golf course and First Baptist out of class envy or to incite class warfare. Golf is a fine sport and if you like golf that’s fantastic, go play every day. Our issue here with golf is specifically about the LaFayette Golf Course and how it takes priority over everything else in town because that’s what the city council (Norm Hodge particularly), mayor, and other prominent citizens like. If they liked NASCAR and spent every penny the city has on building a miniature race track, or liked country music and spent all the city money on a reproduction Opry stage, and made sure that both had cheap entry fees while everyone’s utility bills soared and the roads collapsed we’d complain about that just as loudly. It’s not the specific sport or hobby, it’s making one or two particular things a priority for the town when they shouldn’t be. There’s more to life than civil war tourism, golf, and softball, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the city and county spending priorities.

    As for First Baptist, it gets mentioned (although not as often as you indicate) because the membership there is so overlapped with the city council and leadership. First United Methodist has its share of city leadership as well, but FBC’s theology comes into conflict with what its city father members actually do much more often than the theology of FUMC does.

    We need leaders who will actually listen to the people who live here and understand the real issues we all face in everyday life. Until then LaFayette won’t be livable for anyone, much less the young professionals we’d all love to see here.

    Thanks for your readership.

    — The LaFayette Underground

  12. I have an opinion on this. I don’t know where all the houses are that have burned but the one on first street has needed burned for years. Can’t imagine why anyone would want to investigate it. All it was for was a place for drug users and thieves to hang out. Best thing that happened in that area in a long time. You all are being a little hard on the arsonist ? Should be sayin job well done !

  13. Figures that comment was made by an ex city judge… This is the same attitude reflected by so much of the city’s leadership.

    A few empty crackhouses burned isn’t that big a deal, but some have just been temporarily empty rental houses, or the occasional garage or closed business – and some of the fires have damaged nearby homes, not to mention the environmental impact a burning house makes. Plus letting this go on forever is encouraging the arsonist to burn more things more often, it’s like broken window syndrome.

    If the city council and police department want empty abandoned houses gone they need to pass an ordinance like Rossville did and start taking those over, but that would require powerful slumlords like David Coker to bring their own properties up to code. Again, as long as this just happens to “those people” nobody cares.

    — The LaFayette Underground

  14. Ex city judge or not, the truth is the truth. If the city’s current leadership has the wrong attitude / idea’s, and you think you could make a big difference in the city, By all means run for election. I think most all folks I have talked with want improvement no matter who comes up with the idea’s so I am sure many people would support you if you do truly desire to solve some or all of the city’s problems.

  15. So vigilanteism is the solution to all our ills?

    Truth is truth, and the truth is the arsonist(s) are breaking the law and potentially endangering lives. Are you really OK with that?

  16. Ultimately the ends DON’T justify the means, and we need to step back and take a look at the bigger picture. Being rid of empty and abandoned houses is an overall good but if accomplishing that means damaging someone’s private property and endangering lives while fueling the drug habits of teen hoodlums, it’s an overall negative. And as Lucas said, setting someone else’s property on fire is wrong and illegal on any level, regardless. Period, end of story. You don’t ignore first degree murder even if the guy murdered was a complete loser, because the law is the law and it’s supposed to protect all of us equally even if we aren’t a nice person, aren’t rich, aren’t whatever. When the police department has freedom to only enforce the law when (or where) it wants to, we’re all headed for huge trouble.

    — The LaFayette Underground

  17. The arson problem didn’t just come out. Every house that has been burnt has been reported in the newspaper and to the police department. Just because you are either too young to remember or didn’t read the Messenger doesn’t mean it wasn’t reported. The fact that the Chief went to the media for help shows that he is using every avenue to try to catch this person that is breaking the law. Don’t forget this has been going on for 15 years or more and the present Chief was not even here during most of this arson problem. I do agree with LU though that no matter what is going on in these houses, they should not be burnt down. It costs someone somewhere to clean up, rebuild or do whatever with these properties after they are burned. Everyone who has insurance on a building here in the city could be effected due to increased fire insurance costs because so many homes in this area are damaged by fire. The firefighters that have to come out to these calls also put their health at risk to do their jobs. Too many people are put in danger because of this and I hope that he or she will stop doing this before someone gets hurt intentionally or unintentionally.

  18. “The fact that the Chief went to the media for help shows that he is using every avenue to try to catch this person that is breaking the law.”

    I think it show he’s using every avenue to try and appear like he is. Every avenue to catch them should include asking people who live in Linwood if they know who’s responsible like we did. Every middle and high school kid out there knows exactly who it is, and readers of this site can too if they read closely enough. Yet no arrest has been made. I think that speaks volumes about the values and concerns of the city’s leaders and it’s police department.

    — The LaFayette Underground

  19. “Just because you are either too young to remember or didn’t read the Messenger doesn’t mean it wasn’t reported.”

    Just because you claim they were all reported doesn’t make it so, either. I am 29 and read the Messenger regularly. The majority of these arsons cannot be found reported in the paper.

    Can you link to some archived reports of this problem before this year?

  20. I read the Messenger, both in print and online. The only house fire they’ve mentioned this year was the one on First St. and the later one on Indiana was mentioned along with Freeman’s statement about the rash of arsons. I might have missed one or two along the way, but no way I missed reports about the ten Freeman says we’ve had this year (and that was a month ago). The photos in this post are (in order): Indiana Street, King Street, First Street, and 3rd Ave. I know all happened this year except for King St. (it might have been late last year) but there was little to no news coverage of those in the paper or on the radio. There was also a fire behind the old W&W Garage (now Lowrance’s) on the corner of King and Probasco, one out towards Walmart on the highway, and others I’ve not been made aware of due to the lack of media coverage. This isn’t the fault of our paper or radio station, they can only cover what they’re made aware of and both have very limited resources for taking pictures of yet another house fire at 3 AM.

    I included one link to a 2007 story quoting Freeman about the city’s arson problem, but that’s when they rolled out those ineffective yard signs and originally offered the reward money. Not much in the paper since then about it, and no signs of any investigation being done except for the unrelated city property arson at New Year’s 2008.

    I think the results of their supposed investigation speak for themselves. If the LPD is investigating this so intensely why haven’t they tracked down the arsonist when the LU Blog was able to find two strong suspects in an hour? They need to set foot into Linwood and ask some questions there instead of continually staking out Hardee’s and Krystal.

    — The LaFayette Underground

  21. The Chief of the LaFayette Police Department is completely incompetent. He has caused so many problems inside the police department much less outside the department. He has promoted people that are completely clueless about what they are doing. Now since the few people that knew what they were doing recently went to patrol the investigations division is completely helpless and incompetent. The amount of cases that are going to be solved now is going to go down and more than likely crime rate will go up.

  22. Anon:
    Freeman claims crime statistics are down. But that all depends on your definition of crime rates: is it actual crimes reported, actual crimes investigated, or actual crimes? We live in a community where many people don’t even bother calling the police anymore because they know it won’t accomplish anything. If nobody ever calls to report criminal activity the “statistics” will go down for sure. See: http://www.catwalkchatt.com/view/full_story/8003270/article-Chief-Freeman-addresses-Rotary-Club?

    He’s appointed by the mayor, city council, and sheriff – until the people in those positions change the person serving as police chief won’t change either.

    — The LaFayette Underground

  23. Without being asked, information was volunteered as to the striking family resemblance of the City Manager and the Chief of Police, by local people that interact with them on a daily basis.

    A quick telephone background check revealed that the two parties were never no further than 1hr. 26 mins and no closer than 37 mins away from each other within the last 20 years. Their background appears to be entirely rooted in S. GA.

    City Manager Arnold hired the Chief.

    Probably just a coincindence………………………..
    h other

  24. Gabby: Would love to get more documentation of this if you have any..

    Johnnie Arnold was imported from Savannah in 1998. Freeman came in from Griffin in 2007. The committee to find a new police chief was made up of Mayor Florence, Johnnie Arnold, Sheriff Wilson, and J.D. Stutz of the State Patrol. Arnold was actually supposed to do it himself but set up the selection committee to make the process appear fair. Florence and Arnold actually made the decision, Wilson and Stutz were only there to add credibility since the other two had no experience in law enforcement.

    Once the selection was made, two members of the City Council refused to vote for Freeman because he’s not a local. At-large member Wayne Swanson and former Linwood councilman Melvin Bridges voted no, while Andy Arnold, Judy Meeks, and our old friend Norman Hodge voted in favor. Responsibility for the man’s incompetence falls on the three of them, plus the mayor and city manager.

    — The LaFayette Underground

  25. Not that it matters a hill of beans, but back when we had a Fire Chief and Police Chief separately, I don’t recall having these kind of problems. Come to think about I don’t remember a drug problem when we had to separate Chiefs. I know it’s cheaper on the City of LaFayette to just use one man for both. If there was a Fire Chief it would free up the Police chief up to tackle other problems other than arson. I not to say our last Fire Chief was a perfect man, but he got the job done into his 70’s. If you are old enough to remember the Abney burning, you’ll probably remember Chief Maffett coordinating different companies to save as much as possible of the Abney building. Does LaFayette need a Fire Chief? Maybe……

  26. paw:
    They combined the public works and utility department directors too, and that turned out to be a total bust… It’s as much about being able to pay the head man more as it is about saving money (combining jobs allows both) but usually ends up hurting one (or both) departments. Freeman had no fire experience before he took the LaFayette job, which required him to get fire certified, and I think that shows in his job performance. Of course he WAS a police before now, but you couldn’t really determine that from looking at his three years of law enforcement (mis)leadership.

    — The LaFayette Underground

  27. Well, I knew the last Fire Chief LaFayette had very well. He’s deal was fire. He lived to hear the fire whistle blow, as crazy as that might sound. I remember seeing him run into a burning house in his 60’s passing up the younger fighters. I do believe there should be two separate chiefs and there is nothing anyone can say that will change my mind. Jim Tom Maffett one of the made LaFayette great even though his roots are in Linwood. I think Dino was good for the community for the most part. If we ever do have two separate chiefs, I do hope they are native sons or daughters of LaFayette. Not some import. LaFayette is unique and we need unique men and women to help make LaFayette the great place it can be.

  28. excuse my left out words here and there.

  29. Here is another thought that popped into my empty head. Does the City send any of it’s fire fighters to any state trainings or does the Chief participate in yearly state Fire Chiefs, if they actually still have them. Firemen are professionals and should be treated as such. I am sure they have to certified with the state and all that jazz. If not, what is the point. Any Joe Friday can put water onto a fire, but to fight one aggressively to minimize damage done takes skill. The thoughts were just bouncing in my head after reading the article for a second time. I probably could have Googled the answer and probably will. I just want to bounce the thought off of something other than my skull.

  30. They do have to send the firefighters to train, else the Fire Department wouldn’t be recognized by insurance companies and we’d all pay more for insurance. Some of the training is done elsewhere and some is done internally – they’ve been using the old water treatment plant on Hillsdale Rd. (across from Gilbert Elementary) lately for that and want to put something similar out on the bypass near the utility building. Not sure if the internal training is any good though.

    The issue with the arsons isn’t so much the capacity of the fire department to put out the intentionally-set fires as it is with the LPD’s investigators doing a good job (or any job at all) with finding out who actually sets them. That often comes down to a lack of concern and a lack of manpower as much as it comes down to lack of training for either department.

    –The LaFayette Underground

  31. Touche. Pussy cat. I got thoughts about firebugs. And my thoughts are after awhile they slip and they get caught. I know patterns have been mentioned before, but I going to do it again. People who play with fire just to see things burn are attention whores. I just saying.

  32. linwood had always had a problem with arson… why is this new to you people…

  33. Thats the problem they are all corrupt but the citizens cant see therefor they cant make a difference. The City Counsel and the Chief are very close and watch each others back/ They make it appoint to keep each other in office. Also the chief and some other police officers ( using the term police officers as lightly as possible) at the department are setting it up so that when the current chief leaves the least qualified person, who does not meet the job requirements of the position he is currently in, will be chief. In my opinion the chief and assistant chief should both be fired. Along with several others at the department.

    The chief is not from him and will not stay long after he leaves the position. This means he honestly doesn’t care about LaFayette. We should have someone that cares and wants to improve the community for everyones benefit not just him and his close friends, who just brown nose. Officer Clift went from a slick sleeve to the assistant director since the chief has been appointed. Other officers have been there twice as long and have twice the requirements that he has and still do not have the job.

    If you would like to help further benefit LaFayette show up at the Counsel metting on December 13 at 7:30 and show your support.

  34. The people in
    lafayette want it this way or the ones in office would be voted out

  35. I agree the house on first street needed cleaning up. The city did make the”owners” (a holding company out of Atlanta) clean up most of the mess a couple of years ago. In my opinion that is one of the problems….a holding company was allowed to purchase delinquent tax properties in Lafayette. Now the majority of this property is still sitting empty or has been burned. The holding company has deeded all the property they purchased back to the previous owners and put a lein on the property for the money they have invested which I know at least on one property is more than the land is worth. So what happens now?

  36. Eddie: if they acutually knew about all the things going on i hardly sought they would vote for them again

  37. I think if enough of LaFayette’s voters knew and understood what goes on we’d see a lot of changes.. That’s part of what we’re hoping to accomplish here.

    Concerned: We have some notes from the (quite lengthy) city council discussion about those properties. It’s a bad situation for the city, and not a lot they can do about it now – but there are plenty of abandoned homes (and buildings) WITH known available local owners who aren’t being pushed to clean up their death-trap buildings. And the city itself owns some terrible properties and abandoned equipment sites too, no rush to clean THOSE up.

    Wayne Swanson suggested during the meeting that they should get permission to do “controlled burns” on the abandoned and dilapidated properties.. But I think that’s more or less what already is happening when a known arsonist is allowed to run around town burning down any empty home he wants as long as it’s on the West side.

    Someday we’ll do a blog about that, hopefully.

    — The LaFayette Underground

  38. Well now there are a couple more burned-out houses to add to the list. Anyone know if these were the arsonist(s) or if it was something else?

  39. Two in October, one was ruled Arson and one accidental, both in Linwood. Two this week, one in West LaFayette and one across from Amberwood Apartments. They decided both of those are arson too, but I suspect at least one was accidentally set by a homeless person trying to stay warm on one of the coldest nights of the year. Kinda hard for an arsonist on foot to set two fires on opposite sides of town within a few minutes of each other. But we’ll see. Now in addition to the state fire marshall they have the ATF involved.

    — The LaFayette Underground

  40. Can’t wait to read your blog with the lengthy discussion from the council meeting.

  41. from what i hear council meeting goes like this

    5-0 5-0 5-0 5-0 5-0 5-0 5-0 5-0 5-0 5-0 5-0 5-0 5-0 5-0 5-0 5-0 5-0 5-0 5-0 5-0 5-0 5-0 5-0

  42. You’re kicking a dead mule here, I’m afraid. Homes being raised to the ground in Linwood and West La Fayette have never been a concern of this township, Hell if you’re good enough at it, they’re liable to name an etrance drive to a Golf Course after you…

  43. why is it that anyone can make false statements and have the innocent locked up? while doing this the city police department ruins numerous peoples reputations. here in this city the accused is guilty until proven innocent. I always thought it was the other way around but I found out different. The “detectives” can make untruth statements to the media so why don’t the accused get a chance to tell their side to the media? then the media lies and says that the accused could not be reached by phone. Hey I have caller ID not a single person from Walker Co. messenger has tried to call. I agree with the others on the city being currupt. They only want to arrest someone so they can show that they are doing “their job”. Don’t believe everything you read in the messenger because most of it is half truths. I raised my children to respect the law but here lately I have lost confindence in them myself.

  44. What have you (or family members) been accused of? You can contact us any time via e-mail or on AIM, I’d be glad to hear you out.

    — LU

  45. I would love to discuss this with you and all the people of LaFayette who think they are safe in their own homes. Not true. The police can bust through your home anytime. That includes day or night. I have witnessed this myself. The police can scream in your face and threaten to lock you up just because you have an opinion. I have also been through this. It only gets worse when you file a report against them. They will find a way to make things even worse for you. I personally went to the city police station trying to get help with a certain problem, instead I was screamed at and threatened to be locked up. After that a family member was framed for a crime that they did not commet. We have 5 witnesses that can testify for the accussed whereabouts at the time of the crime. Instead the county police came to my home at 11:00 p.m. to make an arrest. I was angry with them for waiting so late to come after they had already had the warrant for 2 days. They also threatened to arrest me which I still made another complaint at the walker Co. Sheriffs Dept. this time. 2 weeks later I recieved a letter from the sheriffs office that stated the officers were warned about threatening to lock me up without doing it and for me to rest assure that I was safe in my home. Could you feel safe in your home after that? I felt violated. I had no control in my own home. I was helpless. I can’t tell you alot about this case because it is still going on but you can count on the whole story after it’s over. I will let you know my age and that’s 55.