Most of the Army personnel and civilian employees at Fort Benning had long since gone home when the urgent call came on a Friday night in February: One of the post's historic buildings was on fire.
Post police officers arrived at the Judge Advocate General's office first, and forced their way in to see paper burning in piles on several desks. They grabbed fire extinguishers, but were driven out by dense smoke.
Thirty-five firefighters battled the blaze, but the 10,000-square-foot building was reduced within hours to smoldering, blackened ruins in the first known arson of a JAG office in the United States.
The Feb. 6 fire shocked this military community of 100,000 officers, reservists and civilian workers and their families.
The landmark building was the second-oldest at Fort Benning and dated back a century. Its small, tiered courtroom hosted the court-martial of Lt. William Calley, who was convicted in 1971 of killing 22 civilians in the Vietnamese village of My Lai in 1968.
"It makes me angry," said Robert S. Poydasheff, a former mayor of nearby Columbus and one-time staff judge advocate at Fort Benning. "There was a lot of history there."
The JAG office stood about 200 feet from a white columned mansion that was built in 1909 as a plantation home for a prominent Columbus businessman and since used as the commanding general's residence. The plantation was acquired by the Army in 1918 and the building that would become the JAG was originally a dairy creamery.
A suspect was found quickly. Five days after the fire, federal authorities charged Shawana T. Pierce, a former civilian employee at the JAG office, with arson. The 30-year-old mother of two was dismissed from her job after being suspected of stealing office supplies, officials said.
A trial date has not been scheduled and Pierce was being held without bond. Her attorney, Mike Reynolds of Columbus, declined to discuss specifics of the case.
Investigators initially said they suspected the fire may have been an attempt to destroy evidence and said Pierce's page on MySpace carried the profile name "Firestarter" at the time. They added she was still allowed on post grounds while working at another office, despite orders to stay away from JAG headquarters.
Fort Benning officials would not comment on Pierce, her work history or other details. But post officials said that while some records were destroyed, criminal evidence was not housed in the building and digitally stored files were safe on a network server.
For the 48 employees at JAG, some with 30 or more years of work in the building, the fire left them badly shaken, Poydasheff said.
"It was like a second home," he said, noting family photographs, framed degrees and other mementos also were destroyed.
Lt. Col. George Wright, an Army spokesman in Washington, said that to his knowledge and that of officials in the military's Criminal Investigation Command, the JAG fire was a first.
According to an affidavit from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, an investigator swiftly retrieved two green propane cylinders from the fire scene, and a day later, a 5-gallon red plastic gasoline container with blood stains about 150 yards away.
At a Feb. 19 bond hearing, federal prosecutor Brendan Flanagan said blood on the gas can matched a DNA swab taken from Pierce.
The ATF affidavit said surveillance video from a local Wal-Mart showed Pierce buying a red 5-gallon container and two green propane bottles hours before the fire.
Documents show a former JAG employee took a photograph of Pierce's MySpace page — showing the profile name "Firestarter" and a Feb. 6 login date — and sent it to Chief Warrant Officer Kerstin Sheffey, Pierce's former supervisor. Next to the description of her mood was the word "happy," the ATF affidavit said.
Sheffey viewed the MySpace page again Feb. 7, the day after the fire. The affidavit said the profile name beside Pierce's photograph was still "Firestarter" and the mood — "fabulous."
The next day, the profile name had been removed.
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