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Tennessee Department of Agriculture Crime Unit Makes Arrest in Switchgrass Arson Fire

Friday, March 23, 2012 | 08:10am

TELLICO PLAINS, Tenn – The TDA Agricultural Crime Unit has arrested two men who have confessed to setting fire to 1,430 bales of switchgrass worth approximately $45,000. Eighteen-year-old Damon O’Neil Shaw and 27-year-old Brian McJunkin, both of Tellico Plains, are charged with three counts each of setting fire to personal property or land, a class E felony.

“Because of the significant investment this property represents for the state and area farmers, we made this investigation a top priority,” state Agriculture Commissioner Julius Johnson said. “I want to commend our Agricultural Crime Unit investigators for their quick response and hard work in breaking this case.”

The ACU formed a task force on Wednesday afternoon after it was determined that the investigation would require extensive legwork. Captain Greg Whitehead and Investigators Shane Ratliff, Pete Merz and Marianne Reese put several hundred man hours into the case before taking the suspects into custody on Thursday night.

McJunkin was released Thursday night on a $9,000 bond. Shaw is still in jail awaiting bail. Their first court hearing is scheduled for March 26. It appears that the property owners were not specifically targeted, but the victim of a random crime. The suspects told investigators they started the fires because they were bored and looking for some excitement.

The flames were discovered around 3 a.m. Tuesday on the Stokely Farm, private property in Tellico Plains. The ACU says three separate stacks were burned. One was located within the city limits and the other two were on the backside of the farm on Hwy. 360. No one was hurt in the fires and no other property appears to have been damaged.

The property where the fires occurred is a staging area for switchgrass harvested in partnership with the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture. The switchgrass is then transported to the Biomass Innovation Park in Vonore, Tennessee to be used by Genera Energy for ethanol research and development. The switchgrass burned in the fires could have produced more than 56,000 gallons of ethanol. Approximately 30,000 tons of switchgrass were harvested in 2011 and more than 40,000 tons are expected to be harvested in 2012.

Anyone with information about suspected arson activity should call the Tennessee Arson Hotline toll-free at 1-800-762-3017.

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