Teen faces judge for school fire

July 15, 2009 6:42:52 PM PDT
The Cumberland County Sheriff's Office arrested a teenager on Tuesday in connection with a fire that destroyed part of Douglas Byrd Middle School over two weeks ago.Douglas Byrd Senior High School student William Thomas Ellis is charged with burning the schoolhouse, which is considered a felony.

The fire completely destroyed the gymnasium and part of the cafeteria at the middle school on July 1.

Click here to read more about the fire and to watch video from the scene

Investigators released surveillance video last week of three boys seen around the school minutes before the fire broke out.

They said the images helped them identify 16-year-old Ellis and two other 15-year-old juveniles. Because the other two suspects are juveniles, their names and charges won't be released to the public.

The images from the video were dark and grainy, but Ellis' mother told Eyewitness News she recognized her son. But she said her son denied having anything to do with the fire.

Through the investigation, detectives said they interviewed over 100 people and collected fingerprints and physical evidence from the crime scene.

Investigators later determined the fire was started by fireworks. Minutes before the blaze was discovered, police had received a complaint of fireworks being shot off in the area.

Court records stated that Ellis climbed on the roof of the middle school and set off several fireworks. He is also accused of dropping a smoke bomb into the gym through an open window, starting the fire.

As crew fought to keep the flames from spreading, firefighters reported finding remnants of fireworks near the gym and cafeteria buildings.

"To what extent was it intentional or accidental we don't know that yet, but there is certainly a liability issue for the parents," said Tim Kinlaw with Cumberland County Schools.

He said crews hope to begin demolishing the gutted buildings early next week. School officials estimated damage at $4 million, but said classrooms and offices should be ready when school starts.

"We will be using the schools adjoining the campus and high school to feed students; from the gym point of view we will be using the Douglas Byrd Senior High Gym."

On Wednesday, a judge released Eliis from the Cumberland County Detention Center to the custody of his parents.

If he is convicted, he could spend up to five years in prison.


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