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Volunteers charged: Two arrested on numerous arson counts

By Sally Voth -- svoth@nvdaily.com

NEW MARKET -- Two members of the New Market Volunteer Fire Department were behind a three-week arson spree in the New Market area, investigators said Monday.

Michael Allen Bell, 18, of 2576 Quicksburg Road, Quicksburg, and Ryan John Frank Sullivan, 20, of 9171 S. Congress St., New Market, were denied bond Monday and are being held in the Rockingham County Jail, Assistant Rockingham County Fire Marshal Lt. Mike Armstrong said.

He joined three Shenandoah County officials -- Sheriff Timothy C. Carter, Fire and Rescue Chief Gary Yew and Fire Marshal David Ferguson -- at a press conference Monday afternoon at the town's Arthur L. Hildreth Jr. Municipal Building.

The pair were arrested Saturday at the firehouse, Armstrong said.

Seven suspicious fires bur-ned barns and vacant houses in southern Shenandoah County and northern Rockingham County in the past three weeks, Ferguson said.

The first, at 729 New Market Depot Road, New Market, on March 29, involved an abandoned house under renovation, he said.

The next two fires were in Rockingham County -- a vacant house at 19421 Smith Creek Road on April 4 and a former Endless Caverns gift shop at the intersection of Hulings Lane and North Valley Pike on April 13, Armstrong said.

On Wednesday, a barn at 667 Caverns Road in Quicksburg, was burnt, and the next day, a barn at 350 Quicksburg Road was consumed, Ferguson said. Also on Thursday, a barn at 1794 Happy Valley Road, Basye, was reported burned, he said.

Friday marked the seventh and last fire, a vacant house at 2410 Mauzy Athlone Road in Rockingham County.

Bell and Sullivan have been charged by the Shenandoah County Sheriff's Office with four counts each of arson and conspiracy to commit arson, Carter said. In Rockingham County, Sullivan faces three counts of arson and Bell two counts of arson, Armstrong said.

While they didn't respond to all the arsons, Bell and Sullivan joined their fellow firefighters at some of the fire scenes, Carter said.

"Based on the information we have at this point, their intent was to cause disruption to Shenandoah County and Rockingham specifically with regard to the fire and rescue responses to these scenes," he said. "I personally believe that they would've continued had they not been caught."

The accusations have left New Market Fire Chief Matt Hughes reeling. He only took over the department in Nov-ember following the ouster of a half-dozen officers, including then-Chief Danny McAlexander, after a forensic investigator found evidence of financial improprieties.

Sullivan and Bell were both active in the department, Hughes said in a phone interview, and Bell was recently made a truck sergeant.

"It's a big shocker," Hughes said. "It's very disappointing to me that they did this. I don't know what drove them to this, whether it was the thrill of the fire, fighting fire, anger. I have no idea."

He hopes the community will still support the company.

"The fire department can't be responsible for two people's actions," Hughes said. "I hope we didn't lose any of their trust that we regained after what happened with the McAlexanders. But, I'm sure some people will probably not think too highly of the New Market Fire Department now. It seems like every time we're getting ahead and doing some good, something comes along and knocks us back down."

Yew spoke in support of the department during the press conference.

"My faith is still with these volunteers at the New Market Fire Department," he said. "They still have a strong core of active volunteers, whose only goal is to provide the best public safety they possibly can."

Also participating in the arson investigation were the Shenandoah County Crime Scene Unit, Woodstock police, Mt. Jackson police, New Market police, the Loudoun County fire marshal's office, state police, Top of Virginia Search and Rescue and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.



View Suspicious fires in a larger map




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