Chance encounter leads to arson confession, arrest

Published 7:50 pm Saturday, November 10, 2012

A chance encounter last week led to charges of arson against a Washington man.
James Marvin Atkins III, 22, of Bright Road No. 1, was arrested after an off-duty investigator with the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office witnessed suspicious activity at an abandoned house in Belhaven, according to Maj. Kenneth Watson, spokesman for the sheriff’s office.
According to a press release from the agency, on Nov. 3, Investigator Greg Rowe was driving home and was near the intersection of Yeatesville and Sidney roads in Belhaven when he spotted a vehicle at an abandoned residence. Rowe, who is the drug unit’s diversion officer, was driving his own vehicle, but after calling in the suspicious car and its single occupant, he went home to get his sheriff’s office vehicle.
“He knew the home was uninhabited and we had had attempted arsons at that location in the past,” Watson explained.
As Rowe returned to the scene, 911 telecommunicators had already received a call about a fire at the same residence. The house was in flames, and the vehicle Rowe had seen earlier was traveling north on Yeatesville Road. Rowe went after it and pulled the vehicle over, and he was joined by patrol Deputy E. Davis, also responding to the scene, said the press release.
“(Rowe) immediately began a roadside interview that led to confessions,” Watson said. “Having a witness, especially one as eager as (Rowe), made it much easier for us.”
Rowe said that he was told two different stories by Atkins and the driver of the car, Tiffany Nicole Cornelius, 30, of Boyd Loop Road, Pinetown.
According to Rowe, Atkins had been drinking and at first kept denying being inside the abandoned home and starting the fire, while Cornelius said Atkins had gone inside, but he didn’t indicate to her what he’d been doing. But after Rowe confronted Atkins with his own eyewitness account, Atkins admitted to the crime, according to the sheriff’s department.
Firefighters with the Sidney Volunteer Fire Department arrived to battle the blaze, while Atkins was arrested on charged of second-degree arson, felony breaking and entering and possession of an open container of alcohol. Cornelius was arrested and charged with having no driver’s license and possession of an open container of alcohol.
The circa 1930s home and property, which had been uninhabited for quite some time, is registered to Tristar Aviation Development, owned by Wayne Woolard, a resident of Bath, but Atkins’ connection to the home may have had some bearing on the crime, according to Watson.
“He told us he had bad memories at the home and indicated he had lived there in the past,” Watson said.
Watson said the fire, started with a lighter and pine straw, partially damaged the residence.
Atkins was held in the Beaufort County Detention Center under a $20,500 secured bond; Cornelius was held under a $500 secured bond.
In light of Atkins’ confession, Watson said, investigators are looking into the possibility of his involvement in prior arson attempts.
Watson also said that Rowe’s actions, taken on his personal time, are a credit to the agency.
“He was very observant and knew what to do when he saw suspicious activity,” Watson said. “Your investigative skills are not something you leave at work. We’re proud to have dedicated deputies like Investigator Rowe, who are willing to look for criminal acts even when they’re off duty.”
The arson took place approximately two miles from Rowe’s home.
“Being that close to home — that’s my community. You have to look out for everybody in it,” Rowe said.