published Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

Conflict over cat led to fatal Thanksgiving fire in Red Bank

WHAT'S NEXT

Suspect Christopher Wehunt's next court date is set for Jan. 6 before Red Bank Judge Johnny Houston.

  • photo
    Christopher Wehunt, 33, remained in the Hamilton County Jail on a $750,000 bond for charges of criminal homicide, aggravated arson, felony reckless endangerment, felony vandalism, and two counts of reckless aggravated assault after a fire killed a man in Red Bank.
    Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The Thanksgiving Day fire that killed a Red Bank man and left four people homeless apparently started over a misunderstanding about a cat.

And the man accused of starting the blaze did so by setting fire to a blanket he had been given just minutes before to ward off the cold.

"I'm burning all y'all up," the suspect called out. A short time later, the building was ablaze.

These details about what happened that day are included in a police report on the fire that destroyed the apartment building at 137 Hedgewood Drive.

Christopher Wehunt, 33, has been charged with criminal homicide, aggravated arson, felony reckless endangerment, felony vandalism and two counts of reckless aggravated assault in connection with the fire.

On Monday afternoon, Wehunt entered Red Bank court in handcuffs wearing a yellow jail jumpsuit. He was appointed an attorney, Zak Newman, to represent him after a public defender was unable to take the case.

Meanwhile, Wehunt remains in the Hamilton County Jail under $750,000 bond.

Wehunt had been living at the apartment quad at 137 Hedgewood, but residents said he recently had moved down the street. He had been caring for the cat but wasn't allowed to take the cat with him when he moved. He relied on his former neighbors to help feed it.

And they did take care of the cat, said a neighbor who declined to be identified.

"[A lady] took care of it and she didn't even have food for herself or her son half the time," the neighbor said.

But early Thanksgiving morning while it was still dark, Wehunt began pounding on apartment doors, yelling and throwing objects at the building, according to the police report.

"Where is my [expletive] cat?" Wehunt yelled.

Residents told Wehunt to leave or they would call the police.

When Wehunt knocked on the door of Dewey and Michelle Rose's second-floor apartment, Dewey Rose, 51, answered and told Wehunt "it was disrespectful to knock on anyone's door drunk at 4:30 in the morning."

That comment, "set Chris off," Rose's wife, Michelle, told investigators.

  • photo
    Christopher Wehunt, seated at left, faces numerous charges including criminal homicide and aggravated arson after Red Bank police say he set an apartment building on fire Thanksgiving morning. A resident, Dewey Rose, perished in the fire. Zak Newman, right, a defense attorney, was appointed in Red Bank court to represent Wehunt.
    Photo by Beth Burger /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The Roses gave Wehunt a grayish-blue blanket to keep him warm, then closed the door.

Minutes later, Michelle Rose told police, she heard the metallic click of a lighter outside their door. Witnesses later told police that Wehunt set the blanket afire using a lighter.

Smoke began to invade the Roses' apartment, followed by flames when Dewey Rose opened the apartment door. Fire engulfed the unit and began to spread throughout the building.

Michelle Rose jumped from the second-story window to escape the flames. Her husband never followed.

"He coughed a few times, disappeared and fell back," said the neighbor.

A couple of hours later, firefighters found Dewey Rose's body in the charred structure.

A day after the fire, the cat was seen walking through the yard, wandering under the yellow tape that roped off the damaged structure.

Contact staff writer Beth Burger at bburger@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abburger.

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