The sounds of breaking glass and shouting roused Carter Downing from a deep sleep early on the morning of Dec. 9, 2010.
She heard her neighbors scream that the Montagu Street apartment house where she lived was on fire. When Downing opened her bedroom door, smoke came pouring in.
She, her boyfriend and the two guys who lived upstairs managed to escape as flames crawled up the side of the house. But with no smoke detectors in the Charleston home, Downing shudders to think how things would have turned out if her neighbors hadn't seen the fire's eerie glow at 3:30 a.m.
“None of us would have woken up,” she said. “If the girls next door had not seen the fire, the four of us would have died in the house that night.”
Downing, who was a College of Charleston junior at the time, got another chill Monday when she learned that the man now accused of starting that fire was a carpenter who did plenty of work around the house at 48 Montagu St.
That fire is one of three that 55-year-old Kenneth Boone, of Charleston, is accused of setting around the area. The other two blazes occurred in rural Hollywood. He's being held in lieu of $300,000 bail at the county jail on four arson-related charges.
Downing recalled Boone as a “really shady guy” who her landlord hired to work on the home. He came by at odd hours, ate their food without permission and had a work crew made up of “some of the sketchiest people I've ever met in my life,” she said.
The stocky construction worker, dressed in a striped jail jumpsuit, did not speak to the charges against him during a brief court appearance Tuesday via video conferencing.
His attorney, David Aylor, cautioned people to withhold judgment on his client while police investigate a string of more than 80 suspicious fires. Authorities have said they consider Boone a suspect in at least some of the fires.
“Obviously, the investigation is going to move forward aggressively, but at this point I am not aware of any other charges that are coming,” Aylor said.
Anatomy of an arson
An affidavit Charleston police filed in the Montagu Avenue case states an accomplice told investigators that Boone solicited his cooperation in setting a fire at the home so that he could profit from the repairs afterward. The blaze was the third intentionally set fire that had occurred at the house, according to a police report.
The affidavit identifies the accomplice as 54-year-old Isaiah Foster, a Charleston man with a history of drug and shoplifting convictions, according to court records. He offered his account on Friday, the same day Boone was stopped by investigators and arrested.
Foster told police Boone picked him up around 1 a.m. on Dec. 9, 2010, and they went to Montagu Avenue so Boone could “make some work” at a home owned by Pauline Sottile. Boone parked his green pickup about a block away so as “not to make loud noise and wake anyone up,” the affidavit said.
Boone reportedly told Foster to act as a lookout and whistle if he saw police. Boone trundled off toward 48 Montagu carrying a plastic milk jug and returned 10 minutes later smelling of gasoline, the affidavit said.
Foster told police Boone hurriedly jumped in the truck and said, “We got to get out of here.” They escaped without detection, and Boone “secured 'the hustle' to repair the fire damage” soon after, the affidavit said.
Foster told police he helped Boone do the repair work and noticed fire damage along the rear of the house near the air-conditioning units. Investigators noted that this was indeed where the home had been damaged and that authorities had found the presence of “an ignitable liquid odor” there, the affidavit said.
A check of building permits also found that Boone had been hired to do the repair work on the home, police said.
Reached on Tuesday, Sottile declined to comment on the fire or Boone.
Another former tenant at 48 Montagu, 22-year-old Emily Joye, also recalled seeing Boone around the house performing work several times when she lived there. Like Downing, Joye described Boone as “creepy.”
Aylor said he's still researching the evidence against his client but his main goal at this point is to get Boone out of jail so he can care for his two parents. Boone, he said, is a father of two and the primary caretaker for his 95-year-old father and his mother, who is a double-amputee. “His family needs him,” Aylor said.
Before Boone's bond hearing began, jail officials found themselves trying to move an inmate in a wheelchair from the small hearing room. Boone intervened and helped push the wheelchair from the room. “I take care of my mom,” he told detention officers. “I know how to do this.”
The act didn't seem to impress Magistrate Linda Lombard. She added $75,000 onto Boone's previous $225,000 bail amount, making it that much more difficult for him to get out of jail.
Fires in Hollywood
Police and Charleston County sheriff's deputies stopped Boone early Friday as he and another man were headed to burn another home in Hollywood, authorities said. Investigators found a plastic milk jug of gas in the car.
The arrest was the culmination of an undercover operation that began in October with a tip to the city's arson hotline, which in turn fueled new life into the hunt for a serial arsonist who has torched downtown homes since the early 2000s.
An informant told investigators he believed Boone was burning homes so he could later profit from the repair work. The informant contacted Boone over several weeks and police recorded most of those conversations. Boone told the informant he planned to torch another home in Hollywood and that he had “already worked it out so that he would perform the repair work after the fire,” according to a police report.
Police were also listening in and recording Boone as he headed to Hollywood with the informant on Friday, the report said. He was heard saying that he planned to pour gasoline through a window and light it with a napkin, and that “the only way someone will know this house is on fire is if they drive by,” the report said.
An affidavit said Boone planned to bring paint so they could paint the words “this house is ours” on the residence. Boone knew the residence was vacant, and that there was “an heir's ownership dispute between several individuals. Spray painting the residence would distract investigators into believing the arson was committed within the feud,” the affidavit said.
Investigators said they have linked Boone to two previous fires at a home on S.C. Highway 162 in Hollywood. Those fires occurred in August and September, and Boone performed the repairs after each blaze, affidavits said. Witnesses told investigators he had bragged about setting the fires, and Boone allegedly told the informant he torched the home because he knew the owner had insurance to pay for the work, affidavits said.
Tony Bartelme contributed to this report.
Editor's note: Earlier versions of this story gave an incorrect age for Emily Joye. The Post and Courier regrets the error.