By Mike Hixenbaugh
LUMBERTON – The smell of charred upholstery still was fresh in the air when the arson investigator stepped onto the crime scene two days after the mobile home went up in flames.
Lt. Brian Duckworth knew right away this Jan. 1 fire off Indian Drive in Maxton was no accident. The burn pattern that crept up the trailer’s vinyl siding formed an inverted V, a telltale sign the structure had been doused with something flammable.
The blaze obviously had been staged so it appeared as if the air-conditioning unit caught fire, but electricity to the mobile home had been cut off for weeks. Duckworth kneeled at the base of the trailer and pulled a handful of black soot to his nose.
“Lighter fluid,” he said.
Soon, witnesses began lining up, all of them telling a familiar tale. The investigator has heard this story too many times the past several months: A scorned ex-lover extracts his revenge with a gallon of gasoline and the strike of a match.
This seems to be the new norm in Robeson County, Duckworth said, pointing to a county map in his office dotted with more than 100 red pins, each representing a 2010 arson case. The fire investigator purchased a bigger map for 2011.
“The mentality of people in this county has become, ‘I’m mad with John, and so I’m going to go burn his house down,’ ” Duckworth said. “That’s the mentality a lot of people have now, and it’s spreading and becoming more prevalent for some reason.”
In only a year as the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office lead arson investigator, Duckworth has sifted through more than 160 suspicious fire scenes. More than 100 of them were later confirmed arsons.
Of those, Duckworth said, most were set in retaliation for some sort of domestic dispute or a drug deal gone bad. In some instances, Duckworth said, the fires were set to settle a score between feuding neighbors or old friends.
This backwoods twist on conflict resolution has become all too common in this sprawling rural county in recent months and years, Duckworth said.
The Sheriff’s Office doesn’t track the number of arsons borne out of domestic disputes, so it’s difficult to formally document the upward trend Duckworth has identified. But Fire Marshall Charles Britt and area volunteer fire chiefs also have noticed the pattern, Britt said.
In the 40 or so years Britt has been responding to fires, he has never seen so many personal disputes end in residential blazes, he said.
“We’ve historically had a lot of fires in the county over the years,” Britt said. “That’s not new. But what we have seen is a lot more of these cases where someone gets mad and sets someone else’s house on fire.”
The majority of intentional fires set in Robeson County the past few years have resulted in property damage and little more. But a few fires in recent years have ended tragically.
In May 2007, lawmen arrested 36-year-old Shelia Caroline Oxendine after she allegedly doused her boyfriend, 69-year-old Austin Wilson, with a flammable liquid while he was sleeping before setting him on fire. Wilson died in the hospital, and Oxendine is awaiting trial on first-degree murder and felony arson charges.
“Luckily, most of the time, there aren’t injuries involved in the fires I investigate,” Duckworth said.
But there can be other consequences.
The average Robeson County resident with a home valued at $150,000 pays $1,059 a year for insurance, about 25 percent more than homeowners in Cumberland County, according to statistics from the state Department of Insurance. The rates, which went into affect in 2009, were calculated based on insurance claims filed between 2001 and 2005.
Insurance rates are determined on a regional basis, and so Columbus and Bladen counties share Robeson County’s rate, officials said.
A spike in arsons this year could lead to higher insurance premiums for property owners in Robeson County and surrounding areas later down the road, said Kerry Hall, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Insurance.
“Something that is interesting about the Robeson County data is that more than 60 percent of homeowners who claimed losses (between 2001 and 2005) made the claim because of fire,” Hall said. “Most other counties in the state are 40 percent and under in that category. So the county does have a historically higher rate of fire claims, and that factors in insurance rates.”
Lawmen and fire officials aren’t sure how to stomp out the growing problem of retaliation fires. Duckworth said he hopes publicity about recent arrests and criminal charges will deter people who might be thinking about buying a gallon of gasoline and getting even.
Next month, the fire investigator is starting a countywide training course teaching volunteer firefighters how to preserve evidence at fire scenes.
“Anything to make my job easier,” he said.
Duckworth said he wouldn’t have been able to detect the lighter fluid at the Indian Drive fire earlier this month if fire crews hadn’t handled the blaze properly.
Deputies made an arrest in the case Tuesday night. Chadwick Locklear, 28, is accused of setting the fire at the home, which belongs to his ex-wife’s boyfriend. He was being held Wednesday on a $25,000 bond.
“This is a perfect example of what we’ve been dealing with,” Duckworth said. “It used to be that people in Robeson County would retaliate by shooting at each other. Now they’re setting fires. We’ve got to get past this stuff.”