HOW TO HELP
Anyone with information about the fire or who saw anything suspicious early Dec. 3 at the Coffe County Drug Court building on the corner of Hickerson and College streets should contact the Manchester Police Department at 931-728-2099.
Investigators believe a fire that caused smoke and water damage to the Coffee County Drug Court building Tuesday morning was intentionally set, possibly by someone who was scheduled for a drug test or hearing that day.
Manchester, Tenn., investigators said the fire appears to have been started with an accelerant -- gasoline or possibly a mix of gasoline and diesel -- poured or sprayed into the heating and air conditioning duct work at the back of the building.
Drug court case manager Marilyn Woods-Robinson stopped by the building about 6 a.m. CST on her way to a speaking engagement and smelled smoke, Manchester Fire Chief GeorgeDeShields said Wednesday.
About nine firefighters went to the building where they found visible smoke but no flames, and heard water running inside a wall, DeShields said. The firefighters cut a hole in the wall and found burned duct work and a 3/4-inch PVC water pipe that got hot and burst, extinguishing the fire, he said.
DeShields said investigators with the police department, fire department and the state bomb and arson team began collecting evidence.
Drug court is in a metal, house-shaped building, about 50 feet by 50 feet, on the corner of College and Hickerson streets less than 400 feet east of the Coffee County Jail. The jail and court building are separated by a gravel parking lot.
According to Manchester police investigator Butch Stewart and a police report filed by Officer Jason Kennedy, surveillance video from the area could provide footage of the arsonist or arsonists in action.
There were at least "a couple of dozen or so" people on testing lists and the hearing docket who will be questioned to begin with, and "anyone else they [drug court officials] might have made mad," Stewart said.
"Our suspect list is lengthy," he said.
Stewart said it was possible whoever started the fire intended to send the accelerant fumes throughout the building before igniting it, which could have caused an explosion.
He said there was no damaged to court records or evidence housed in the building.
Court officials were not at the building Wednesday, but officials said drug court will probably resume when cleanup is finished in the next day or two.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569.
Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...