Probe remains open in 1998 fire at VHS

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 25, 2003

[8/24/03]Five years ago, fires at Vicksburg High School delayed classes for a week and caused nearly $1 million in damage, yet no arrest has been made.

“It’s obviously not a closed investigation because it’s not been solved,” said Police Chief Tommy Moffett. But he said investigators are not actively working on the case.

Two fires on Aug. 22, 1998, destroyed the main office of the former Cooper Building and left smoke and water damage throughout the three-story building. In addition, the vandals punched holes in about 70 computer monitors in second-floor computer labs.

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Leslie Decareaux is an investigator for the Vicksburg Fire Department. She said the arson remains under investigation and if any new leads were to come to light, officials would contact the federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearm agency and the state Fire Marshal’s Office.

And while the trails to solving the case appear to have blurred, memories are sharp and clear for some affected by the blaze.

“It was a devastating morning for me,” said Don Taylor, who, as an assistant principal of the school then, had an office full of memorabilia damaged by smoke. “It was unbelievable that somebody could be so sorry and low down to do that.”

And some members of the Vicksburg Warren School District Board of Trustees remain baffled and disappointed that police have not had any success in solving the case.

“I am extremely disappointed that police have not given the board any confirmed evidence to bring the persons who have done this horrible thing to justice,” said Zelmarine Murphy, then president of the board of trustees. She is currently vice president. “This is too important to have been swept under the carpet.”

She said she understands that the police department has gone through several administrative changes since the fire, but said someone should report to the board to let trustees know where the case stands.

Since the fire, the police department has seen two new chiefs. Charles Chisley was at the helm in 1998, Mitchell Dent followed, and Moffett was appointed in 2001.

“Rumors floated and still float, but police tell us there are no facts to put these rumors to bed,” Murphy said.

That’s another memory Vicksburgers haven’t forgotten: the rumors.

“There were police officers who felt very strongly that they knew who had done that but would not follow through with it,” Taylor said.

Yet without official action or hard evidence, a rumor is just a rumor.

“From talking to a number of people, the fire is of grave concern to a number of citizens,” Moffett said. “Of course, we would love to see the case solved.”

James Price, who moved into the superintendent’s office this summer, said board members will continue to ask police for updates on the investigation.

“From time to time, the board inquires into the progress that is being made and unfortunately there has been very little in the past few years,” he said. “We have not forgotten and are still hoping for an arrest and a conviction.”

Despite finding no suspect to hold responsible for the damaged building, some were comforted by the efforts of the students, community and faculty to remain united throughout the crisis, including donating nearly $10,000 in reward money.

“I am pleased with how the community pulled together and especially how the school family came together so that school would go on,” Murphy said. “Even though the school was heavily damaged with smoke, we were able to go on.”

The day after the fire, nearly 200 students turned out to hang motivational signs that read, “We are Gators, We will Survive,” “We love VHS” and “Burned, not beaten.”

Students returned to the classes a week after the fire.

This year, nearly 1,100 students are enrolled in the school and a bomb threat Wednesday forced officials to delay the start of school for an hour. A 20-year-old freshman was arrested and charged with making the threat.

Meanwhile, school officials will continue to wait for an update on the 1998 fire.

“We are still hurt,” Murphy said. “We wonder if the case will ever be closed and the guilty parties will be brought to justice.”

But life will go on, just as Taylor did, putting the devastation behind him and becoming principal of the school before retiring in June 2002.

But he still wonders.

“It’s always been a mystery to me why no arrests were made in the fire,” he said.

“The fire itself is like an old girlfriend,” he said. “Every now and then, I think about it.”