COLUMBIA — An aspiring rapper wept during a hearing Thursday as victims testified they feared for their lives and lost family heirlooms after two rental homes owned by Gov. Henry McMaster were set on fire this week.
Frank John Wilberding, whose songs under the name Dank Frank brag about drug use and having sex, was soft-spoken and long-faced before a judge decided to keep the 21-year-old behind bars by denying bail.
Wilberding was on drugs when authorities said the homes on Greene Street near the University of South Carolina campus were set ablaze early Tuesday morning, his attorney, Lori Murray, said in court.
"There were a lot of actions from that night that my client has very little recollection of," Murray said
Already facing three counts of arson and a drug possession charge, Wilberding received additional charges: 10 count of assault and battery covering the occupants of the homes who escaped the fire unharmed.
If convicted on all counts, he faces up to 175 years in prison, city of Columbia Judge Susan Porter said. The potential stiff sentence, along with requests from prosecutors and victims, led Porter to keep Wilberding in jail.
"It created a severely dangerous situation," Deputy 5th Circuit Solicitor Daniel Goldberg said of the fire.
There was no indication the fire that caused $450,000 in damage to the homes was set because they belonged the governor, who owns 20 rental homes around the city. McMaster's office had no comment Thursday.
Wilberding received drug-related charges in Jasper County in 2014, Porter said, but she did not provide details, and Wilberding said he did not recall the case's outcome.
Wilberding spent much of last year in the Los Angeles area working to build a music career. He posted 27 songs online with titles including “I Be Sellin Weed,” “White Champagne,” “Return to 843,” “Codeine & Cocaine” and “Yahtzee.”
He came back to South Carolina this year after running out of money, his father told The Post and Courier.
Wilberding, wearing dark blue prison clothes and plastic sandals, said little during the hearing at the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center in Columbia. He answered questions from the judge including that he has lived in South Carolina for more than a decade after being born in Michigan and has been unemployed for the past year.
He said he left high school after the 11th grade and spent some time last year working on getting a GED. Wilberding is a quadruplet, his attorney said.
Wilberding had an undisclosed issue with another person who lived on Greene Street and went to the homes trying to find this person, Columbia Police Investigator Matthew Jenkins said in court. Surveillance video showed the fire was set when spray from an aerosol can kept in a maintenance closet was ignited, investigators and residents said.
House tenants said none of them knew Wilberding, who was caught by police three blocks from the burned homes some six hours after the blaze started.
Tenants testified at Thursday's hearing about how the deliberately set fire left them homeless and frightened.
"We lost everything in that fire," said Matthew Talbot, who graduated last week from USC. "Priceless heirlooms, stuff given to me by my grandfather who passed away last year. If we were in that house three minutes later, this would be a different story. I don't think we would all have made it out of the house."
Claire Price, another house tenant, said Wilberding needs to face consequences.
"The fact that we had to be scared of our own lives and run out of a burning building is very terrifying. We're still living today feeling unsafe."
Romey Poore, another recent USC graduate, was one of the first tenants to notice the fire that he said started less than 10 feet from his head. The business management major got people out of his house and then did the same next door.
As Poore said he was sorry about how Wilberding would miss weddings, funerals, births and other life events because of the charges, Wilberding visibly got choked up. He cried at the end of the hearing.
Poore, who lost his record collection and record player, said he hopes Wilberding can make amends.
"I've done some stuff that have hurt people in the past. I think everybody has," Poore said after the hearing. "He didn't mean to hurt me and he didn't mean to hurt anybody in the house. My battle is pretty much over. I'm not going to lose sleep at night over a lot of this. The least I can do is forgive him. He has enough to deal with."