LUMBERTON — One of the 10 firefighters charged with arson Tuesday was charged with the same crime in 2012.
Austin Seth Hunt, 23, of U.S. 301 South in Rowland, was charged with setting six fires to woodlands and grasslands over a two-year period while serving as a volunteer firefighter with the Rowland and, later, Raynham-McDonald fire departments, District Attorney Johnson Britt said.
“He was given a deferred prosecution. That charge is no longer on record,” Britt said. “Hunt was required to do community service and stay out of trouble.”
Capt. Brian Duckworth, once a Robeson County arson investigator and now a member of the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office’s Special Victims Unit, is familiar with Hunt’s 2012 case.
“That was a while back. I believe he was 16 or 17 years old then,” Duckworth said. “I remember that case. I worked it with Forestry (N.C. Forest Service), and in cooperation with the fire department involved. They immediately got him out of their department, that night.
“There were about a dozen suspicious fires. He was ultimately charged with six. There were dumpster and woodland grass fires.”
Hunt is a N.C. Department of Corrections officer who works at the Tabor City Correctional Institution in Tabor City, Jerry Higgins, a state Department of Public Safety spokesman, said Wednesday.
“Austin Hunt was hired on Jan. 22, 2018, and is still an employee of DPS,” Higgins said.
The 10 firefighters arrested Tuesday were with the Fairmont Rural and Orrum volunteer fire departments. The fire chiefs of the two departments say operations will not be affected.
“We are still up and running,” Fairmont Fire Chief Terry Gibson said. “We are here to protect the community.”
“I want to assure people in the Orrum Township fire district that their property is being protected, and they are being protected,” Fire Chief Steve Britt said. “This incident doesn’t reflect us.
“I was surprised. I knew there was an investigation going on involving firefighters. I had no idea there were some from my department. I found out about the arrests through social media. I wish I didn’t have to find out like that.”
There are 24 active firefighters in the Orrum battalion, Britt said. Three of the 10 charged were from the Orrum department.
Firefighters connected to arson is not a rare occurrence, Johnson Britt said.
“Unfortunately, it’s a relatively common occurrence with firefighters,” he said. “One of the things that contributes to this type of crimes is you have teenage young men. They want to become a firefighter. They go through the training and in reality they (fires) are not that common.”
Both the district attorney and Duckworth want the residents of Robeson County to know that there are good firefighters out there.
“It’s bad that we have a few that make good, hard-working firefighters look bad,” Duckworth said. “I don’t want the public to judge all the firefighters.”
“Volunteer firefighters provide an invaluable service. They are an asset to our county. If you combine all of the fire departments that exist we are talking nearly 2,000 people, membership wise,” Johnson Britt said. “I think it’s forgotten by the community when it comes to the dangers that surround this profession.”
The 10 firefighters were arrested as the result of a yearlong investigation involving multiple state and federal agencies. Law enforcement officials say the monetary damage caused by the fires is substantial.
Nearly 90 arson-related charges have been filed in the first phase of the nearly two-year investigation. More arrests are expected.
The seven teenagers arrested and charged Tuesday were Ashley Marie Oxendine, 18, of Lepine Drive in Orrum; John Austin Huggins, 17, of Merritt Road in Fairmont; Jordan Scott, 19, of Lennon Drive in Fairmont; Kenny Caulder Jr., 19, of East Raynham Road in Fairmont; Jordan Emmanuel Hunt, 18, of East Whitepond Road in Fairmont; Shellia Huggins, 19, of Tobacco Road in Fairmont; William Kendall Strickland, 18, of Lennon Drive in Fairmont.
Also arrested were Willie Fuentes Strickland, 42, of Lennon Drive in Fairmont, and former Maxton police Officer Melquan Williams, 21, of 105 N. Florence St. in Maxton. Williams lost his job soon after his arrest.
All 10 of the arrested individuals were placed in the Robeson County Detention Center. Nine were placed under a $100,000 bond. Austin Hunt was placed under a $200,000 bond.
Fires were set on Eldorado Road, Collins Mill Road, Oakton Church Road, Atkinson Road, Raynham Road, Reva Road, N.C. 130, Main Street, Mitchell Road, Davis Road, Happy Hill Road, Marion Stage Road, and Pleasant Hope Road, all in Fairmont, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
The Robeson County Sheriff’s Office arson investigator and Major Crimes Division, the federal ATF, State Bureau of Investigation and the N.C. Forestry Service were involved in the arrests.
The Robesonian has added for this story the two photos of firefighters charged that were not available on Tuesday.
Reach Annick Joseph by calling 910-416-5165 or via email at [email protected] or Facebook Annick MultiMedia Journalist.