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Deputies: Man torched sister's house twice, wanted to go to jail

By Seth Burkett
sburkett@decaturdaily.com 340-2355

UNION HILL — A man told investigators he burned a house belonging to his sister for the second time because he wanted to go to jail, the Morgan County Sheriff's Department said Monday.

Johnny Lee West, 56, called dispatchers and claimed responsibility for the fire at 378 Buster Owen Road early Sunday, said Chief Deputy Mike Corley.

Corley said the department already had alerts on West and that address after a fire at the residence Nov. 27. West, who had lived in a mobile home on the property, claimed to have set fire to the house the first time because he was upset his girlfriend was moving out.

West's sister, who owns the house and rented it out, helped West get out of jail on $50,000 bond, Corley said.

Brindlee Mountain volunteer firefighter James Wessel said firefighters received a call to the residence at about 3:19 a.m. Sunday.

The first of three engine companies arrived in about six minutes, he said.

"The first arriving unit reported that the fire was already through the roof, the roof was already down and the walls had collapsed, so it was a well-advanced fire before we even got the call. The house was a total loss," Wessel said.

As deputies were responding to the fire, Corley said, West called 911 and was transferred to the sheriff's dispatch.

"His admission to this arson and all his comments were all recorded," Corley said. "I think he also admitted it to the central dispatch operator before he was transferred. So, that's more than one person he told. Of course, he didn't deny it to our investigation. He told the whole thing."

Corley said deputies went to Morgan City, where they took West into custody. West gave a detailed statement to Investigator Jodie King, just as he had following the first fire, Corley said.

"The first time he made a statement that there was a tenant there he had a relationship with," Corley said. "This time, he made a statement to her (King) that he wanted to go to jail."

Following West's previous arrest on a charge of second-degree arson, King told The Daily she took a signed statement from West saying he would hurt somebody if allowed out of jail.

'Treatment or prison'

West, who has been treated at mental institutions in the past, specified he wanted "treatment or prison" but not short-term treatment, King said.

"Regardless of what threats he may have made, we can't refuse him bond," Corley said. "It is my understanding ... he actually made threats toward law enforcement. He said he was going to do whatever he needed to do to get in jail because he needed help. Still, he didn't want to stay in jail to the point that he didn't do his part in signing the bond."

"His sister helped him get out on the first charge," Corley said. "I don't know if that was to the point of putting up the property bond or getting someone to be co-signers with her or getting the bondsman."

There had been no reported conflict between West and his sister prior to the fire, Corley said.

The residence was unoccupied and had no power.

West, who apparently was no longer living at the mobile home, gave police his home address as 33 Moss Trail, Lacey's Spring.

Corley said West told investigators "he poured gasoline on a sofa in the interior of the house and set it on fire."

Wessel said starting a fire, even in an unoccupied building, puts others at risk.

"It's not funny," he said. "You've got firefighters putting their lives on the line — not just at the fires, but responding to the fires as well. Arson is a very serious crime."

No one was injured Sunday, but if a firefighter is killed fighting an arson, the person responsible for the fire can be charged with murder.

Charged with a second count of second-degree arson, West remained in Morgan County Jail late Monday.

This time, he is being held in lieu of $200,000 bond.

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