ST. GEORGE - Law enforcement agencies are trying to determine if a number of Dorchester County fires - including the Molotov cocktail bombing of a St. George couple - are the work of one arsonist.
To report an arson
Tipsters can call South Carolina's Arson Hotline at 1-800-92-ARSON or 1-800-922-7766. Callers can also contact Crime Stoppers at 554-1111.
William Rodger Yates, who once welcomed the isolation that came with living in rural St. George, was firebombed on Dec. 4. Now, his peace of mind has been replaced with restless nights and nagging worry.
"That fire went out by the grace of God, no question about it. It was just a pure divine act," Yates said.
The 69-year-old and his wife, Nancy, were fortunate enough that their mobile home on Sprucewood Drive was not a total loss. They still reside on the half-mile stretch of dirt road just north of town.
Their case is one of several arson fires to ignite over the years in rural Dorchester County. The increase in fires has proven difficult to solve, leaving some residents fearful of losing their homes.
When asked to provide information on their recent suspicious fires, Dorchester County sheriff's deputies released reports for upward of 60 cases, some solved, going back two years. Deputies would not say how many of those cases may be connected to one another.
An ongoing probe is being conducted by sheriff's deputies, firefighters and State Law Enforcement Division agents to determine whether a number of those cases were set by the same person, sheriff's Capt. Tony Phinney said.
SLED and Dorchester County Fire officials would not comment on the specifics of the ongoing investigation.
Yates remembered that he had sunk into his reclining chair about 8 p.m. that Wednesday night to watch television while Nancy busied herself nearby in their home office.
Their night was interrupted by the shattering of glass, then an explosion.
A ball of fire licked at one bedroom's window. The flames chased a liquid accelerant that dripped from the window sill and onto the floor.
The couple filled three large cooking pots with water to douse the flames. The fire went out before it could claim the rest of the home.
Perplexed, Yates initially wondered whether his home had been hit by something that fell from the sky.
The answer became clear when investigators found two heavy glass jars - remnants of Molotov cocktails - that had been hurled at the home.
Yates said he never got a glimpse of the person responsible for starting the fire. His blinds had been shut and the porch light was off, he said.
The neighbors reported seeing a light-colored SUV speed from the scene around the time of the fire, he said.
The couple still live in fear at the thought of the arsonist returning to finish the job.
"We don't sleep good at night. ... Living isolated back here, we have no protection should he come back," Yates said. "Don't be mistaken, I am well-armed. Should anything occur and I could protect our property, I certainly would."
Tracking an arsonist
No arrests have been made in the five months since Yates' home was set on fire.
Yates said he trusted that Dorchester County sheriff's deputies were diligently working on the case but that he couldn't help but feel frustrated by an apparent lack of progress.
"(The arsonist) is going to kill somebody sooner or later, there's no doubt in my mind," Yates said. "He burned us knowing we were in the house. Two cars in the driveway, the TV going, lights on in the house. ... A warning ought to go out to every senior citizen."
According to Phinney, the Yates fire was similar to a number of other unsolved arson cases the office is investigating, including a mobile home fire that was reported Jan. 27, 2012, on East Main Street in the town of Dorchester.
The road is located 18 miles southeast of Yates' home.
Ryan Andrew Debran, then a 17-year-old New Jersey native living in Harleyville, notified authorities around 11 p.m. about the Dorchester fire that sparked in a vacant mobile home.
An incident report at the time described Debran as "a volunteer firefighter with the Dorchester Fire Department who was assisting with the fire."
Debran reported to investigators that he and a friend had been driving down the road when they noticed the flames inside the trailer and stopped to seek help.
Sheriff's deputies identified Debran's friend as James Brian Infinger, then 17, of Indian Field Circle in St. George.
The teens quickly became the focus of an investigation and were arrested within two weeks of that fire. They were charged with two counts each of second-degree arson for the Main Street fire and another incident in the Rosinville area.
An arrest affidavit for Infinger said the teen admitted that he and Debran entered the trailer and used a combustible liquid to light a blaze. The pair then fled the scene in Debran's white Neon only to return minutes later to call authorities, detectives alleged.
Infinger pleaded guilty to one lesser charge of malicious damage to property and was sentenced to five years of probation, court records show. Prosecutors chose not to pursue his other arson charge.
Both arson charges are still pending for Debran, according to court records.
In a phone interview, Debran, now 19, denied any wrongdoing in either fire and insisted that he's never committed arson.
He complained of being followed and repeatedly questioned by sheriff's deputies about other blazes that occurred over the years throughout Dorchester County.
When asked why deputies would latch on to him as a person of interest in their investigation, Debran replied, "I haven't yet figured that out. I guess they were going on a lead."
Phinney said sheriff's deputies have not sought out Debran for an interview since his arson arrest in 2012.
Sheriff's deputies did issue him a warning following a traffic stop on Dec. 12, Phinney said.
The stop occurred a little over a week after Yates reported the fire to his home.
"We have not dealt with him this calendar year. If he has a complaint, he can file one," Phinney said.
Debran hasn't been charged in any other arson cases since the 2012 incidents. He was, however, arrested in Orangeburg County in March and charged with impersonating an officer.
According to an incident report released by the state Department of Public Safety, a man called authorities around 9 a.m. March 17 and reported that a silver Chrysler Pacifica with lights and sirens followed him for at least a mile on Interstate 26 and attempted to pull him over.
A passenger in Debran's Chrysler reported to Highway Patrol that they turned on the lights and siren to get the attention of a driver who cut them off, the report said.
Investigators searched Debran's vehicle and found an in-car radio, scanner, operable lights, an FBI badge and two sets of handcuffs, according to the Highway Patrol. Operable blue lights were later found on the vehicle's roof, troopers said.
When questioned by The Post and Courier, Debran acknowledged having white emergency lights on his vehicle, but he denied ever turning them on in the Orangeburg County incident. He said he did have a blue light on top of his Chrysler but that the device was broken.
"Everything that I'm dealing with right now is just accusations," Debran said. "I didn't actually do any of this."
Debran said he hopes to shake the allegations that have followed him over the years so that he can move forward with his life.
A judge recently ordered Debran be placed on electronic monitoring after a motion to revoke his bond following his arrest in Orangeburg was denied, he said.
He's currently searching for work so that he can take care of his fiancee and her young son.
Debran said he followed in the footsteps of friends when he chose to pursue volunteer firefighter training a couple years ago. He switched to an EMT program shortly after, he said.
Officials with the Dorchester County Career and Technology Center did not return phone calls to confirm those details.
"It was a lot more work than I thought it was going to be. They used a lot of your time and were training every day," he said of his reason for abandoning firefighter training.
His plan to become an EMT was interrupted by his arson arrest in 2012, he said.
'A hard crime to detect'
According to Benjamin Norris, a forensic fire consultant and former chief fire investigator for North Charleston, arson cases come with a unique set of challenges that can make them difficult to solve.
"One of the biggest problems is the destruction of evidence. It's a hard crime to detect and unfortunately the training is not what it should be in fire service and law enforcement," Norris said. "It's not a priority to train first responders to recognize some of the indications of an arson fire."
It's not uncommon for authorities to learn that several of their cases are the work of one person, he said.
"There are a lot of serial arsonists out there, but a lot of times you aren't aware of it because so many fires aren't followed up on. You can go a number of years and not realize that one person was responsible for a number of fires," Norris said.
According to Norris, arsonists can be difficult to profile because they come from all backgrounds and have a wide range of motives for their actions. But, he said, there is a nationwide problem with firefighters moonlighting as firebugs.
"Unfortunately, that sort of thing mostly occurs in the volunteer fire departments," Norris said. "Back in the mid-'90s, we had quite a problem with firefighter arsons in South Carolina. It still happens but not quite as bad as it was 15 to 20 years ago."
An arsonist is rarely caught in the act of setting a fire, Norris said, so cases are often strengthened by witness reports and tipsters from impacted communities.
Reach Christina Elmore at 937-5908 or at Twitter.com/celmorePC.