Dorchester County school board chair cites family feud after suspicious fire

The house where Dorchester District 2 school board Chairwoman Gail Hughes grew up was gutted by a suspicious fire less than a week after she was re-elected for her third term. Her campaign signs were stacked in a corner of the front yard this week.

A family feud was simmering before somebody apparently torched a Dorchester County school board member’s house, and she believes that’s the key to solving the crime.

District 2 Chairwoman Gail Hughes is offering a $1,000 reward for information on the arsonist’s identity.

Hughes said she was a co-owner of her mother’s house on Embassy Drive and inherited it when Loretta Leggett died in April. The house was gutted by fire Nov. 10, less than a week after Hughes was re-elected to her third term on the school board. Her yellow re-election signs were piled in a corner of front yard of the burned-out house this week.

The fire was reported about 6 a.m. Firefighters found that the front door appeared to have been forced open and the fire to have started in four different places, Old Fort Fire Chief Ed Genthert said. The Fire Department notified the Sheriff’s Office, which called in the State Law Enforcement Division to investigate. The SLED report had not been released as of this week.

The house is a modest, single-story ranch with white wood siding, in a semirural area off Orangeburg Road west of Summerville. It was not insured, Hughes said. But it was what was inside that mattered — family photos, childhood memories.

“It was my connection with my mother,” she said.

Photos of her mother and siblings had been taken out of the house before the blaze was set, but pictures that included Hughes and her children were left to burn, she said.

A ceramic cross of sentimental value and a jewelry box were missing, apparently taken by whoever set the fire, she said.

“Somebody knew exactly what to look for,” she said.

Hughes told Dorchester County deputies that before the fire she had been arguing with her brother-in-law, Dwight Lee Valis, 49, a registered sex offender who was living in a camper trailer with her sister in the yard. She told deputies that Valis took two beds out of a detached garage and burned them in the yard in June, then threatened to burn everything when she confronted him about it. She evicted Valis in July, according to the report and court records.

She told deputies she took the threat seriously because Valis had been in prison.

A background check with SLED shows that Valis was sentenced to five years in prison in 1987 for receiving stolen goods. He had also been charged with breaking into railway cars.

Valis was sentenced to another three years in 2006 for assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature. He was convicted of raping a 15-year-old girl, and the sentence included a listing in the sex registry.

Investigators found no evidence to link Valis to the fire, and the alleged threat could not be substantiated, sheriff’s Capt. Tony Phinney said.

Attempts to reach Valis through a visit to his residence and messages left by note and telephone were unsuccessful.

Hughes’ suspicions grew after jewelry she said was taken from the house turned up at a pawnshop near Summerville and Valis’ son was arrested.

The jewelry was sold for $260 Nov. 17 at Cash America on North Main Street near Summerville, according to the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office. Dwight Lee Valis II, 23, of Jedburg Road, was arrested Dec. 30. He was charged with receiving stolen goods and obtaining money by false pretenses and released from jail on $4,260 bail.

Anybody with information about the fire is asked to call the Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office. A tip that leads to a conviction could earn a $1,000 reward.

Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.