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Help from public sought in finding who started two fires

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By Jenny Hartley

Help from public sought in finding who started two fires

Authorities released few details about their investigation into a fire at 6th Circuit Solicitor Doug Barfield's office on Thursday, but urged the public to report suspicious activity or even suspicious comments about the blaze.

"Experience with similar cases has shown it is unlikely the offender will confide his crimes with anyone but will follow the investigation in the media and in conversations with family and friends," Lancaster Police Department Capt. Harlean Howard read from a press release about noon Thursday.

Those conversations may include comments such as:

– What do they expect? They didn't have any alarm systems

– It was probably just some kids

– The court here is corrupt or biased

- No one was hurt

Until this person is caught, he continues to pose a threat to buildings and the safety of friends and family, Howard said.

"It is possible he could strike out, unpredictably, against someone he knows," Howard said.

It may be difficult for family members to turn in a loved one, but Howard encouraged anyone with information to come forward before an innocent person is harmed or killed.

A passerby called in the fire at the solicitor's office at 4:14 a.m. Thursday, Lancaster Fire Department Chief Chris Nunnery said. The fire department arrived two minutes later to find heavy fire at the door of the office.

The blaze damaged four other lawyers' offices in the same brick building on West Dunlap Street, in the shadow of the charred Lancaster County Courthouse.

Someone set the 180-year-old courthouse on fire early Monday morning. It suffered extensive damage, but officials are hopeful it can be saved.

Nunnery said Thursday that it's difficult to tell how long the fire at the solicitor's office had been burning before it was called in, or how it started. It was another arson fire, investigators say.

Investigators from the Lancaster Police Department, Lancaster County Sheriff's Office, State Law Enforcement Division and Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were at the scene Thursday morning.

Lancaster Police Department patrol officers stopped every car coming onto Main Street at checkpoints between Gay and Meeting streets to identify those coming near the crime scene just after the fire was reported. Officers asked for driver's licenses and wrote down those numbers.

SLED and ATF are also investigating the Lancaster County Courthouse fire. It was called in about 5:25 a.m. Monday.

Authorities have no suspects in the courthouse fire, and do not know if Thursday morning's fire at the solicitor's office is related.

Officers weren't posted at courthouse

Officers were not posted at the courthouse Wednesday night and early Thursday because the building had been secured and boarded up by 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nunnery said.

A Lancaster police officer was patrolling the area 15 minutes before the fire at the solicitor's office was reported Thursday morning.

Nunnery didn't know the extent of the loss at the solicitor's office or if court records were lost. From the doorway of the building, it appears the office was gutted.

Chris Taylor, assistant 6th Circuit solicitor for Chester County, said the circuit was preparing to install a new computer case management system, and that Lancaster's computers were inside Barfield's office.

Command post set up downtown

Lancaster County Emergency Management Director Morris Russell called for the assistance of the Charlotte Urban Area Security Initiative on Thursday.

It set up a command post inside a tractor-trailer on West Dunlap Street. The tractor-trailer truck, provided by federal Homeland Security after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, has a dispatch system and an air-conditioned conference area.

"We need one place where everyone can meet out of the weather," Russell said, standing at the fence surrounding the burned courthouse. "It's got all the communication equipment we need. I knew this was going to be a prolonged event. We've got to figure out who did this."

"It's getting personal now," said local attorney Francis Bell, watching the investigation from a distance.

ATF and SLED agents, wearing fire helmets and masks, brought out charred materials in wheelbarrows from the solicitor's office late Thursday morning. They dumped the materials into a dumpster, possibly to sift through them for evidence.

Anyone with information about the fire is asked to call Crime Stoppers at 1-888-559-TIPS (8477) or the S.C. Insurance News Service arson hotline at 1-800-92ARSON. Tips may be made anonymously.

Barfield, Lancaster police, Lancaster sheriff's deputies and ATF agents attended the press conference, but did not give out any information. Howard did not answer any other questions after the press conference.

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