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Arrest made in Ramp arson

Article contributed by The Journal Record 

Arrest made in Ramp arson

  • Mississippi man turns himself in on grand jury indictment


Staff Writer 

HAMILTON  - A Mississippi man has turned himself in on a grand jury indictment for the March 22, 2011,  arson that caused temporary damage to The Ramp in Hamilton, Hamilton Police Chief Ralph Conner said on Thursday, March 8.

In a press release, Conner said on March 8 that David Richard Baker, 31, Picayune, Miss., turned himself in at 1 p.m that day at the Marion County Jail in Hamilton. He was arrested on an indictment of second-degree arson by an Alabama deputy state fire marshal, Conner said.

Baker posted a $10,000 bond and has been released, Conner said. In a phone interview later in the day, Conner said he was booked without incident.

District Attorney Jack Bostick said the indictment came down on Feb. 6.

Bostick declined to answer any other questions, saying he could not go beyond the press release. Steve Holmes of the state Fire Marshal’s Office also declined to answer questions, referring to the press release as well. A press conference may possibly be held in a few days, Holmes said.

When asked in a phone interview that day if others were involved or if Baker acted alone, Conner said the case remains open and under investigation. However, he said Baker is charged with the actual arson.

“I guess there are still a lot of unknown things,” Conner said in a follow-up interview the next day, noting the investigation is continuing. Asked about the motive, he said, “I don’t think it’s entirely known yet.”

Conner said that people in the Hamilton area indicated to him that Baker lived at one time in Hamilton. “I’ve had people to say, ‘I knew him when he was a little boy,’” Conner said.

Asked how the fire was started, Conner said “an accelerant” of some type was used. He defined that as something that can cause “rapid combustion,” such as gasoline or lighter fluid.

Several agencies cooperate on case

The year-long investigation--described in the press release as being “extensive” --has been conducted by the Alabama State Fire Marshal’s Office, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, the Hamilton Police Department and the Hamilton Fire Department.

“This was a good joint effort,” Conner said, noting all the agencies contributed something to the investigation. Holmes also stressed the cooperation between the agencies.

The hunt for a suspect lasted a long time due to efforts to try to make an identification. That was helped by a convenience store video that showed a man believed to be the arsonist.

“The video was crucial in indicting the guy,” Conner said.

In August, authorities released information and photos about “a person of interest and a vehicle of interest” that they were looking for in connection with the investigation of the arson, which occurred between 4:30 a.m. and 5 a.m.

Conner said on March 9 that Baker fits the description of the man in the video and that he is allegedly the man in the video.

The person being looked for in August was described as a white male who is 5 feet, 10 inches to 6 feet 1 inch tall and weighed 250 to 300 pounds. He was 30 to 40 years of age, wearing overalls and boots. The vehicle was a late 1990s to early 2000s model two-tone white (gold or silver on bottom) Ford F150 two-wheel drive extra-cab truck. Authorities said the truck might be missing a passenger side mirror and did not appear to have a tool box.

A spokesman for The Ramp said on Friday, March 9, that the ministry had no comment on the arrest.

Sprinklers kept fire from spreading

Hamilton Fire Chief Barron Wiginton said the day after the fire that his department was paged at 5:10 a.m. on March 22, 2011, due to a fire alarm going off at The Ramp. A sprinkler system kept  the fire from spreading, and firefighters were able to extinguish the fire in 10 to 15 minutes. Two engines, a service truck and other pieces of equipment were used.

Karen Wheaton, who founded and heads the ministry, pointed out at the time  that emergency response officials indicated that the sprinkler system, along with firefighters, likely saved the building from burning down.

The sprinkler system and water line improvements were made the year before the fire in the light of complaints made by the Fire Marshal’s Office concerning capacity in the building and the need for a sprinkler system. The building was temporarily shut down to make those improvements.

Wheaton said the sprinkler system and the quick response of the Hamilton Fire Department contained the fire to a corner of the bookstore, although all the bookstore’s contents were considered to be a loss. The area burned was in the corner where a TV was mounted on the wall.

She said fire department officials told her that the sprinklers went off before the smoke detectors did. “That tells you it was a hot and fast fire,” Wheaton said.

Wheaton said sprinklers did not go off in the main auditorium, but water hosed in on the fire by firefighters traveled from the bookstore, which is in the front of the facility off the lobby, to the entrance of the main auditorium.

Water was standing in front of the stage area, and the auditorium carpet was not only wet but stained from rust coming from city water. T-shirts in the gift shop were also stained orange from the water.

Ramp officials were quickly able to make repairs,  and the facility was able to host a city industrial appreciation banquet on April 11 of that year. The bookstore is also back in operation.

Facility used for many functions

The facility recently hosted a Sitel employee appreciation event, and is scheduled to host the Hamilton Area Chamber of Commerce seminar simulcast on May 4.

The Ramp, in addition to its own weekend conferences, also hosts a  Christmas production each year and has church services on Sunday and Wednesday nights and  nine-month college-level classes for a growing number of students. The Ramp is renovating some downtown Hamilton buildings to accommodate housing for those students.

The large crowds for Ramp gatherings--said to be about 1,000 people on the average of twice a month--and other community events hosted at the facility have made the facility a major meeting area. Some officials have used The Ramp as an example on why they feel a new multi-purpose building is needed in Hamilton or the county.

Some year-end Ramp conferences have already been moved outside of the state, as demand for seats is far greater than the Ramp building (a former grocery store) will allow.

The Ramp estimates the city sees an economic impact of $2.5 million each year based on 25,000 annual visitors. People from up to 125 nations have watched Ramp services streamed online.

(When a defendant is charged with a crime, the charge is merely an accusation and the defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty.)


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