Leader Blues

Monday, April 06, 2009

TOP STORY >> Firefighter held in arsons

By GARRICK FELDMAN
Leader Editor-in-chief

A north Pulaski County volunteer firefighter is being held in the Pulaski County Jail on a $25,000 bond after he confessed to setting two area church fires.

Merl White of Cabot, 25, is awaiting a May 21 court hearing on two arson charges.

He confessed to setting fire in February to North Jacksonville Missionary Baptist Church, where he is a member, as well as setting another fire early Wednesday at an abandoned church on Cleland Road. Both are in north Pulaski County.

The blaze at North Jacksonville Missionary Baptist, 6603 John Harden Drive, was extinguished by a water pipe that burst during the fire.

Around 3 a.m. Wednesday, White had called the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office to report a fire at the abandoned church on the corner of Cleland and Roland roads.

The North Pulaski Fire Depart-ment, where White was a firefighter, responded to the blaze, as did the Gravel Ridge and Runyan Acres volunteer fire departments.

During a followup investigation Wednesday evening, White confessed to setting the fire at the abandoned church and at North Jacksonville Missionary Baptist.

Rev. Lyndon Whitledge, the former pastor at the church near the Lonoke County line, was stunned to learn Wednesday that a church member confessed to setting a fire at the church.

“I’m just disappointed when somebody does something like that when we’ve tried to help them,” Whitledge said. “He’s one of the fellows we tried to help.”

He said White, his wife and two young children attended church services together.

“Apparently, he likes setting fires,” the minister said. “They have a feeling of power when they do something like that.

“I think he wanted to get caught,” Whitledge added.

Still, he said he’s not mad at White. “I don’t have animosity toward anybody,” Whitledge said. “We love everybody. Even him. That’s what Christianity requires us to do.”

Church members thought it was a miracle when a water pipe burst in the hallway before the flames could spread into the sanctuary, minimizing damage in the back of the building.

Damage was contained mostly to the gym area, although there was quite a bit of smoke damage in the sanctuary.

“God didn’t want to have the building burned down, although they sure tried,” Whitledge said.

Apparently an accelerant was used in five different spots inside the church, but the arsonist would have had to break through another door to get closer to the sanctuary. He didn’t bother to do that.

“I imagine he’ll go to prison for a long time,” Whitledge said.