COLUMBIA — Authorities arrested a 21-year-old man Tuesday in connection with the suspected arson that damaged two rental homes owned by South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster.
Frank John Wilberding was arrested six hours after a fire caused $450,000 in damage to two homes on the 1700 block of Greene Street between the USC campus and Five Points, Columbia Police said.
After video screenshots of a man seen at the homes when the fire started were shared with the public, authorities spotted Wilberding three blocks away from the homes and arrested him, Columbia Police said.
Wilberding is charged with two counts of arson and possession of a controlled substance, authorities said. Hilton Head Island is listed as Wilberding's address on his driver's license, but he lives on Greene Street in Columbia, police spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons said.
#CPDSCUpdate Here's a picture of the Greene St. arson suspect shortly after he was detained near the crime scene. He's been identified as Frank John Wilberding. Moments ago, we charged him w/Two Counts of Arson-Second Degree & Possession of a Controlled Substance (Schedule IV). pic.twitter.com/P4fgDwWFTe— Columbia Police Dept (@ColumbiaPDSC) May 14, 2019
Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook said he did not think the fires were set because the homes belonged to McMaster. He did not know if the suspect knew any of the tenants in the homes.
McMaster and his wife Peggy came to the scene of the fire where no one was injured and 12 people were displaced.
The McMasters own 20 homes around Columbia, many near the USC campus, that they rent as their main source of income. The couple earns about $300,000 a year from the rentals, according to their tax returns.
House tenants, some in bare feet, gathered on the street as fire crews put out the blaze Tuesday.
"Why would someone do that? What if someone died?," said Ariel Whitmire, a junior at the University of South Carolina from Greenville who lived in one of the houses.
The fire was set on the porch at one of McMaster's homes and spread to his neighboring house, Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins said.
A separate fire was set on a pile of debris behind another home a half-block away on Greene Street, but it burned out before causing major damage, Jenkins said.
Three hours after authorities were first alerted to the blaze at 6:24 a.m., Columbia Police released screenshots of a man a wearing a white shirt, pink shorts and flip-flops suspected of starting the blaze.
Whitmire said that based on a surveillance video from the other house, it appears as if the suspect tried to break into the home, peering into windows and rattling the door handle. She said she did not recognize the man and did not think any of the other residents knew him either.
By noon, Columbia Police and the State Law Enforcement Division announced they detained a man found near the damaged homes who matched the description of the suspect in the video.
The governor's office had no comment other than to express gratitude that tenants were safe and thank the Columbia Fire Department for its work.
The two homes damaged Tuesday have a combined value of $485,000 and a total of eight bedrooms, according to Richland County tax records. The McMasters bought one home in 1994, while the other has been owned by the governor since at least 1978.
#CPDSCUpdate: The fire at 1700 Greene Street is now being investigated as an arson. Here’s a picture of the suspect. Appears to be a slender white male w/brown hair. If you recognize him, call @MidlandsCrime 1-888-CRIME-SC. @ColaFire & SLED on scene. pic.twitter.com/9VsoBxreH0— Columbia Police Dept (@ColumbiaPDSC) May 14, 2019