WOODSTOCK — A former firefighter told authorities he set a fire to an abandoned building in Woodstock in August because he was bored, a Shenandoah County prosecutor said Wednesday.
Ray Boyd Kerns, 37, of Toms Brook, appeared Wednesday in Shenandoah County Circuit Court, where he pleaded guilty to arson of an unoccupied structure and to burglary or entering a building with the intent to commit arson.
Kerns appeared with his court appointed attorney, Public Defender David S. Walls. Shenandoah County Commonwealth’s Attorney Amanda M. Wiseley prosecuted the case.
Judge Kevin C. Black accepted Kerns’ guilty pleas and scheduled sentencing for June 9. Kerns remains in custody at the Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail.
Kerns pleaded guilty to the charges as part of a plea agreement reached with the commonwealth. The agreement leaves it up to the court to set punishment. Arson, a Class 4 felony, carries a punishment of two to 10 years. Entering a building with the intent to commit arson, a Class 3 felony, carries a punishment of five to 20 years.
Wiseley summarized the evidence the commonwealth planned to put on had the case gone to trial. The Shenandoah County Emergency Communications Center received a call around 9:53 p.m. on Aug. 12 for a reported structure fire at 402 W. Locust St., Woodstock. Crews from the Woodstock Fire Department responded and arrived to find a 22,000-square-foot building engulfed in flames, Wiseley said.
The 1902 multi-story wood frame abandoned building was owned by Lena Frances Keegan, who has been missing since August 2021. Keegan bought the property in 1995. The family used the building for storage.
Assistant Fire Marshal Joseph Loving arrived on the scene to investigate the origin and cause of the fire. Loving determined the fire was intentionally set because the building did not have electricity nor had there been any storms or lightning strikes in the area, Wiseley said.
The Woodstock Police Department had had cameras installed for an unrelated investigation in front of and to the rear of the building, Wiseley said. Video footage showed a person standing in front of the building, on private property, at approximately 9:11 p.m. Aug. 12, she said. Footage showed the person taking a cell phone out from a back pants pocket and the screen came on, Wiseley said. The person then walked out of view of the cameras.
Investigators determined that Kerns matched the description given of the person captured on the surveillance video, Wiseley said. Kerns, a volunteer firefighter with the Woodstock Fire Department, was at the station prior to the call and responded with other crew members, Wiseley said. Kerns’ clothes matched the description of those worn by the person in the video. Police saw Kerns’ sweatshirt, which he wore at the property and captured on the video, through his vehicle window, she added.
Later, that evening or early the next morning, Kerns voluntarily walked with officers to the Woodstock Police Department for an interview. An officer noticed Kerns had a cell phone in a back pocket -- matching the image seen on the surveillance footage, Wiseley said. Kerns allowed authorities to download the contents of his cell phone.
“After some time initially denying any involvement, (Kerns) did finally confess to setting the fire,” Wiseley said.
Kerns provided details about setting the fire that only the person who committed the crime would know, Wiseley said. Kerns also directed investigators to evidence he used to commit the crime and walked them through the scene to show how he started the fire.
Kerns took a lighter from the fire station kitchen, walked to the building and around the back to an open door in the rear, Wiseley said. Kerns used the lighter to ignite papers he found in the building, she said. He then returned to the fire station and waited until the fire was reported, Wiseley said.
Evidence downloaded from Kerns’ cell phone showed he was at the building between 9 p.m. and 9:20 p.m. and that he had walked to the location from the fire station, Wiseley said.
“He also stated that he was familiar with that building and the fire department would not conduct any interior firefighting and it would be less likely that anybody would be hurt,” Wiseley said. “He also stated that he started the fire because he was bored sitting around the fire station and not having any calls.”
Such a dumb mistake that has now ruined this man and family, assuming he has one. Life will be tough from here on out.
Welcome to the discussion.
We will consider two submissions per writer per month. Letters: 250 or fewer words. Commentaries: Under 500 words. You may submit a photo with a Commentary if you like. Email submissions to email@example.com.