BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA – A Birmingham police officer with almost three years on the force has been arrested after a series of arsons in abandoned houses in the city and a suburb this month.
Fourteen houses were set ablaze in western Birmingham, and nine in the northern suburb of Warrior.
The Birmingham Police Department and the Alabama State Fire Marshal Office said at a news conference on Friday that Curtis Thornton, a patrolman in the city’s western precinct, had been charged with two counts of arson, one count of attempted arson and one count of felony criminal mischief related to the suburban fires.
Officer Thornton has not yet been charged in any of the Birmingham fires, but police officials here said they expected charges to be filed.
“Although no charges have been filed as of this date, obviously we have now the focus of the investigation,” Chief A. C. Roper Jr. said. “We were appalled at the direction the case has taken, but our goal is to bring that person to justice, regardless of who he is or where he might work.”
Besides the state arson investigation, the Birmingham police are conducting an internal inquiry, Chief Roper said.
Officer Thornton, 27, joined the department in August 2009. During the recent arsons, Mr. Thornton was working the morning shift, which begins at 11 p.m. and ends at 7 a.m., in the western precinct. The Birmingham police would not say whether Mr. Thornton had been on duty during any of the fires.
All of the houses burned in the Ensley neighborhood had been abandoned. Ensley was once a bustling neighborhood of steel mill employees and their families, but mill closings have left the neighborhood blighted with abandoned homes, many on the city’s demolition list, waiting to be torn down.
That process can take years, frustrating nearby residents and providing havens for crime. The city estimates that there are 1,800 houses in need of demolition. The Birmingham City Council has already approved more than 700 demolitions, but recovery from tornadoes last spring and a strained city budget have prevented the city from acting.
The house fires began in the early morning hours last Saturday. Over four days, 14 burned, some of them simultaneously. The only injuries reported were minor ones to firefighters. Meanwhile, state fire marshals investigated another string of nine arsons in Warrior. When that investigation led to a Birmingham police officer, investigators decided the two sets of fires might be connected. Officials here would not release more details, saying that the investigation was continuing.
On Tuesday, Mayor William A. Bell of Birmingham is expected to ask the City Council for an emergency $1.5 million appropriation to demolish the burned homes and move forward with others.