COURTESY OF THE TEXARKANA GAZETTE County Judge Ed Miller in front of new courthouse, October 1985 conversations they speak of county politics as “ruthless” and claim a small group has an “iron grip” on the county. Quite aside and apart from the power that officials wield, some citizens believe there are malevolent and unpredictable forces at work. They pay close attention to cryptic accounts in the newspapers of unsolved murders, and they worry about an active underground drug trade. They also take notice of mysterious fires that are mentioned from time to time in the press; some theorize about an arson ring. The courthouse fire, of course, has been the most talked-about fire in the last few years, but there have been fires, as well, in private properties and in maintenance buildings owned by the county. There is the suspicion among those in the county who are probably naturally inclined toward suspicion that a criminal element lurks just below the surface and may at any moment strike out to “avenge” transgressions, real or imagined. It is this feeling that may have led Paul Addington to tell me, in an interview at a local restaurant a month or so after his “arsonomics” press conference, “I check underneath my truck every morning before I crank it I swear I do.” To county officials the very notion that some citizens feel intimidated is an affront. “We got a good county,” is how County Commissioner Dale Barrett put it, by which he meant to say that the county budget is in good shape, taxes are low and the commissioners court has matters well under control. Talk of “arsonomics” is even more maddening to officials. In an interview at his office at the new courthouse in New Boston in October, Judge Carlow dismissed the preservationists’ charge that insurance money had solved a budget deficit. “There is absolutely nothing to that,” he said. “I hate to break their bubble, but there’s not. They had fun sayin’ it, they were able to get the newspaper interested in it the same old story two or three times. They called two or three press conferences. They’ve just tried to grandstand the thing. The public is tired of hearing it. Bowie County people are sick of it. They think it’s just a handful of people and those people are losing their credibility.” Moments later he softened his tone. “But those are good people,” he said at least those who were sincerely interested in historical preservation. I asked if he saw them as troublemakers. “They have caused some trouble, yeh,” he said. What irked him most was what he presented as the implication of the arsonomics charge. Who would benefit from starting the fire at the old courthouse? he asked rhetorically. Who has chief authority for the county budget? he asked again. He answered his own question: the county judge. So, according to the theory, the county judge must have had a part in the fire. “I’ll tell you the fly in the ointment with that theory,” he said. “You don’t have a county judge that would do that.” He paused. “I didn’t have anything to do with that fire,” he said. Indeed, county officials are so acutely aware of what they regard as prevalent suspicions in the county that one barely needs to bring up the subject of arson at the courthouse before hearing unsolicited denials. Commissioner Barrett put it this way: “Me personally, I wouldn’t have nothing to gain by going over there it’d been no advantage to me personally for an old courthouse to burn.” Barrett said the county commissioners cared about the financial condition of the county, but not enough to put their necks on the block by committing an illegal act. This line of argument was perhaps most strongly put by former county judge Ed Miller. It was during Miller’s term that the county abandoned the old courthouse and moved, in March of 1986, into the modern $6 million facility next to the interstate highWay. Miller said he could understand why an arsonist would burn a building if the arsonist personally stood to gain financially. “I cannot conceive of anyone willing to go to prison so that the county would get several hundred thousand dollars. That would be stupid.” Miller’s scenario on the cause of the fire was this: “Probably some vagrant stayed there, was cold, startgd a fire and it spread.” I reminded him the fire occurred on a warm night in the middle of August. “But maybe eating, cooking, whatever,” he said. “I just don’t believe that any elected official or county official would set fire to the old courthouse.” Judge Carlow’s theory is that the fire was set accidentally by someone who did not intend to destroy the building. “I think the thing was probably set, but I think it was probably set by somebody that was either free-basing cocaine, or smoking, or something,” he said. “I really don’t think it was intentional.” In a report made in August of 1987, however, deputy state fire marshal Don Turk wrote, “It is the opinion of this investigator that an accelerant was used to insure the complete destruction of the structure.” Assistant state fire marshal Mike Davis said a gasoline can had been found on the premises after the fire. Evidence from Turk’s investigation suggested that the fire was the work of an arsonist with deliberate intent, yet Turk himself soft-peddles that theory. Interviewed by telephone more than a year after his report, he said he did not think the fire was the work of a professional arsonist. “My personal opinion, it was just a bunch of kids foolin’ around up there,” he said. County officials insist that what we have in the courthouse fire of August 12, 1987, is a crime without a motive. They may sometimes stretch the imagination \(vagrants yet, to suggest that there might be a connection between the fire, the insurance settlement and the county budget deficit is to raise an arson-as-a-public-service theory that may be very nearly preposterous on its face. Assistant state fire marshal Mike Davis, who monitors arson investigations around the state, told me he has never heard of a government motive in arson. “If that’s the case in this situation,” he said, “it would be the first to my knowledge.” He also said, “I have to admit the circumstances in this case are unusual.” THE TEXAS OBSERVER 13
You May Also Like
The Texas Rangers are tasked with investigating corruption and crimes by public officials. Those officials are rarely held accountable.