A former firefighter who was once called a serial arsonist and accused of lighting dozens of fires two years ago won't have to serve time in a Georgia prison.
Marvin Chase pleaded guilty to seven counts of first-degree arson and one count of second-degree arson earlier this week and was sentenced to 15 to 18 months at a minimum-security detention center.
Chase's attorney, David S. West, said the sentencing was a victory because Chase didn't go to prison. The sentence also shows that the former LaFayette, Ga., firefighter wasn't responsible for 20 to 30 arsons that were originally pinned on him, West said.
"The case was never what [authorities] were making it out to be," West said.
But police say they still believe Chase set dozens of fires at abandoned houses during the five years he was a firefighter, but they couldn't prove all the cases.
Georgia law requires police to find the property owner of a burned structure and have the owner prove the property is theirs, said LaFayette police Sgt. Stacey Meeks. But many of the property owners for the burned homes had died, and taxes hadn't been paid in more than 20 years on several of the buildings.
"Yes, it was as big as we claimed, but we couldn't locate the property owners," Meeks said.
Chase was 33 years old when he was arrested in December 2010 on one count of arson but, during a news conference, authorities said they would be able to prove he was responsible for years of fires set mainly in the Linwood area of LaFayette.
Before his arrest, a witness came forward saying that, while working at his job for the city's water and sewer department, Chase bragged that he had set the fires, Meeks said.
When the state fire marshal investigated the arsons, he told police that most of the fires were started in a similar manner. Some similarities included entering the house through a back door, lighting the fire in a back room such as the kitchen and using flammable liquid to light the flames, Meeks said.
But police believe Chase got better at starting the fires and eventually had it timed. One strategy was to leave a cigarette on a magazine so it would start a flame within an hour, police said.
During questioning after he was arrested, Chase admitted to lighting the fires, saying: "I pretty much did all of them," Meeks said, reading a confession letter Chase later signed.
But West said that statement doesn't mean anything. Chase only admitted to lighting about four of the fires and gave specific details about only one fire, he said.
After Chase is released from a detention center, he will be on 20 years' probation, court records show.
And if he completes probation without another felony, he won't have a record, his attorney said.
Meanwhile, several people at the hearing on Monday speculated about why Chase lit the fires, such as he had a fascination with fires or deliberately wanted to get rid of dilapidated houses, West said. But Chase gave no explanation for why he did it.
"He made a mistake," West said.
Police assume he lit the fires for the financial benefit since he was a volunteer firefighter and would be compensated for putting out the flames on a pay scale that depended on the type of fire call.
"He was getting paid to fight fires, and making the most money for structural fires," Meeks said. But he added, "[Chase] was basically a likable guy, he just made a bad decision."
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...