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Ga. police chief's home is torched

Investigators want to know if the arson is related to a suspect's death in custody.

Associated Press
Published January 21, 2006


MARSHALLVILLE, Ga. - A small-town police chief's home was destroyed by fire early Friday just hours after a man died in police custody, and investigators were trying to determine if the two incidents were connected.

No one was home and no injuries were reported. No immediate arrests were made.

Police Chief Stephen Stewart, a Navy reservist who returned from duty in Iraq about two months ago, had left the house along with his family shortly after the death in this town of 1,300 people 90 miles south of Atlanta, authorities said.

Clarence Walker, 48, died at a hospital after officers used pepper spray on him Thursday night while he was resisting arrest on probation and parole violations, said John Bankhead, a spokesman for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The cause of death was not immediately disclosed.

As news of Walker's death spread, about 100 people gathered downtown near the police station. Macon County Sheriff Charles Cannon said the crowd was not unruly.

"In a small town like Marshallville, it's a situation where people want to know what's going on," Cannon said. After about two hours, Cannon said, he asked Walker's family to ask the crowd to disperse, and they did.

It was about that time that several people broke into Stewart's home and set it on fire, Bankhead said.

The FBI joined the investigation.

The home, actually a parsonage in a church, was gutted. Stewart, police chief for about 2 1/2 years, and his family had been living in the home temporarily after his return from a year in Iraq.

Investigators declined to comment on whether the fire was racially motivated. The police chief is white in this predominantly black town; Walker was black. The officers involved in the arrest are also black.

Georgia's top fire official said he suspects revenge was the motive. State Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner John Oxendine said there is no question the fire was deliberately set, and a burglary preceded the fire.

Oxendine noted that Stewart's wife is pregnant with the family's third child.

"Thank God the chief had the foresight to send his family away. I don't even want to imagine what would have happened if the pregnant wife and small children had been home," said Oxendine, whose office has offered a $10,000 reward for information in the case.

James Jackson, the oldest brother of Clarence Walker, said that his brother angered the police because he often ran from them. He said the police chief had let it be known around town that his officers would arrest Walker "dead or alive."

One of Walker's sisters, Betty Jackson, said she and another sister went to City Hall on Thursday when they learned of their brother's arrest, and they saw officers pull their brother out of the police car and lay him down in front of the building. An ambulance then arrived and he was taken to the hospital.

[Last modified January 21, 2006, 01:50:40]


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