A Centre man has been charged with setting two structure fires this week — one in his home and one at a local church, according to Cherokee County Sheriff Jeff Shaver.
Keith Garner, 61, was arrested and charged Thursday with first-degree arson and second-degree arson, Shaver said in a press release.
Leigha Blake, fire investigator for the sheriff’s office, arrested Garner for setting fire to his own mobile home earlier this week, while someone was inside the residence. Fortunately, Shaver said, the person was able to escape the blaze without injury.
Garner also is charged with setting a fire at Ebenezer United Methodist Church in the Alexis Community early Wednesday. The fire destroyed the church’s fellowship hall.
Blake said Thursday afternoon that the sheriff’s office and the State Fire Marshal’s office worked together to quickly investigate the fires and charge the suspect.
She said Garner’s bail currently is $45,000, but she expects it to be increased when he faces the judge Friday.
Rich Lindsey, chief of the McCords Crossroads Volunteer Fire Department, said the call about the church fire came at 2 a.m. Wednesday. Firefighters from the Spring Creek and Ellisville fire departments also responded to the blaze.
“We were on the scene for about three hours,” Lindsey said.
The McCords Fire Department had only two months prior earlier placed a fire truck at the department’s second location, only a 3-minute drive to the church. The department had received a grant from U.S. Homeland Security to enhance its response capabilities and efficiency in serving the communites in east central Cherokee County).
The Rev. George Cobb, minister at Ebenezer UMC, said Thursday, “We mourn the loss of our fellowship hall building, but we are indeed grateful that no one was injured.
“The fire consumed the fellowship hall, a structure that has served not only the church, but the whole community for several decades,” he said. “It is used for meals after funerals, weddings, birthday parties and more, even as the site for election voting. it has been the hub of activity for the whole community. We have 50-plus years of memories of fellowship hall events for members and the community.”
Cobb reported that the wooden cross outside the front door of the hall remains standing. “It has a few blackened places, but we will still be able to use it as a living cross at Easter time and for other events,” he said.
Cobb also reported — as did Lindsey — that the church sanctuary, a brick structure next door to the fellowship hall, was damaged but can be repaired. “Most of that damage was from the heat and the water,” he said. “The glass in the windows on the fellowship side were blown out and some window blinds were melted.”
Ebenezer United Methodist Church was established in 1836. About 50 people attend the Sunday morning services each week.
Cobb said Thursday that the church’s trustees and board members (lay peeople) will in all likelihood involve the congregation in making plans for rebuilding the fellowship hall. The church does have insurance, he said, although the percentage of coverage for the rebuilding will have to be determined.