17-year-old charged in courthouse arson

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By Jenny Hartley

17-year-old charged in courthouse arson

Jenny Hartley

The news spread like wildfire Friday afternoon.

After six weeks of both discouragement and hope, authorities made an arrest in the fires at the Lancaster County Courthouse and 6th Circuit Solicitor's office.

Their suspect, Martavious Semaj Carter, 17, was jailed the day before in connection with a string of five armed robberies in the downtown Lancaster area from Aug. 21 to Thursday.

County officials, firefighters, attorneys and law enforcement gathered in front of the Municipal Justice Center for a press conference Friday to hear the news that seemed hard to believe.

"Martavious Semaj Carter, who is already in police custody for other unrelated charges, will be charged with setting these fires," Lancaster Police Capt. Harlean Howard read from a press release. "The charges will be for two counts of arson."

A round of applause went through the crowd.

"This community needed for this individual to be caught," said local historian Lindsay Pettus. "It was definitely a wake-up call to the community, but I'm glad the community can just relax a little next week. I'm glad this individual is off the street and Lancaster can begin to heal."

Authorities released no other details about the arson cases Friday.

Fires shock community

Firefighters and police responded to the courthouse fire about 5:25 a.m. Aug. 4. The fire was apparently started on the second floor courtroom, in front of the judge's bench.

The second floor was destroyed in the blaze, with the fire burning through the roof of the 180-year-old building. The first floor sustained smoke and water damage, but officials were able to salvage most court records and other documents stored there.

Officials have said they have every intention of seeing that the courthouse is restored.

The community reacted in shock and sadness to the fire.

County Council Chairman Rudy Carter said residents were reverent as they stood on the sidewalk watching the fire burn. That morning had the air of a funeral, he said.

The community was shocked again when emergency workers were called to a fire at the 6th Circuit Solicitor's office about 4:15 a.m. Aug. 7. The office is across from the courthouse on West Dunlap Street.

The office was a total loss.

Authorities determined quickly that both fires were arson.

The State Law Enforcement Division, Lancaster County Sheriff's Office and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives assisted in the investigation.

After nearly six weeks of waiting for a break in the case, officials got their wish Friday afternoon.

"I feel a great sense of relief that an arrest has been made," said 6th Circuit Solicitor Doug Barfield.

Rudy Carter said he got "chills" when sheriff's office Chief Deputy Barry Faile called him and told him the news about lunchtime Friday.

"It's absolutely wonderful," Rudy Carter said. "Now maybe people can relax a little."

Challenges await county

Clerk of Court Jeff Hammond said he was nearly speechless after Friday's announcement.

"I feel relieved, and I'm happy for the community," Hammond said. "God bless the police and firefighters. It took a tremendous effort to pull this off."

But the challenges aren't over.

The solicitor, public defender and clerk of court have all been displaced by the fires, and are working in makeshift offices in the basement of the County Administration Building.

Officials are looking for a temporary building to house court functions until a new courthouse can be built. That is several years away.

The estimated cost of a new courthouse is $33 million.

Plans were already in the works to build new court facilities before the fire.

Officials concluded that the old courthouse lacked the space and was simply too antiquated to continue to function as a working courthouse. Some officials had talked about converting the old courthouse into a museum before the fire. Some officials hope that still will happen.

The old courthouse, built in 1828, was designed by famed Charleston architect Robert Mills. Mills is best known for drawing up the original plans for the Washington Monument.

A referendum will be on the ballot in November in which residents are asked to approve a penny sales tax to pay for the new courthouse.

Officials say if the referendum is rejected, a new courthouse will still be built, but will be paid for with property tax revenues instead.

County officials learned the hard way how crucial it is to have sprinklers and alarm systems in place at government buildings. The historic courthouse and the solicitor's office did not have these systems in place.

Taxpayers are being asked to pay for upgrades in security in the wake of the fires.

Hammond said the county can't fall victim again.

"We can't let down our guard," he said. "We've got to stay on top of this security thing."

Contact senior reporter Jenny Hartley at jhartley@thelancasternews.com or at (803) 283-1151