GEORGIA MAN AGREES TO PLEAD GUILTY TO ARSON AND FRAUD IN GARDENDALE CHURCH FIRES
BIRMINGHAM – A Georgia man has agreed to plead guilty to mail fraud and arson charges brought by federal prosecutors in connection with two fires at Gardendale First Baptist Church, announced U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance, ATF Special Agent in Charge Glenn Anderson and U.S. Secret Service Special Agent in Charge Roy Sexton.
The U.S. Attorney charged DONNY RAY HORTON JR., 46, of Hoschton, Ga., in a three-count information filed today in U.S. District Court. Prosecutors simultaneously filed a plea agreement with HORTON.
According to the plea agreement, HORTON fraudulently took $78,769 from Gardendale First Baptist Church as a deposit for seating in a sanctuary it was building, then twice set fire to the building to delay installation of the 2,600 seats he never ordered.
“Good police work by the Gardendale Police Department and the Alabama State Fire Marshal led to the defendant’s arrest and, ultimately, to the charges in this case,” Vance said. “Crimes of this nature will not be tolerated in this district, and the best way to prevent or prosecute crime is to have federal, state and local law enforcement working together, as was done in this case,” she said.
“Anytime a house of worship is attacked, it is taken very seriously. The potential for a firefighter, police officer or church member to be injured, or even killed, is always a possibility,” Anderson said. “In this particular case, a financial predicament motivated Mr. Horton to set fire to a sacred place in an attempt to delay his shortfalls,” Anderson said.
The information charges HORTON with mail fraud for falsely representing that he had placed the church’s seating order with Ohio-based Sauder Manufacturing. That misrepresentation, according to the information, caused the church to send the deposit payment by express delivery to HORTON’s home address in Georgia, where he received and later spent the money.
The information also charges HORTON with two counts of arson at Gardendale First Baptist Church, one on April 3, 2010, and the second on April 30, 2010.
According to the plea agreement, HORTON, as an independent representative of Sauder Manufacturing, secured the church’s sanctuary seating order in March 2009, but never forwarded it to the manufacturer. To delay the scheduled seating installation in early April 2010, HORTON traveled from Georgia on Saturday, April 3, and set fire to the sanctuary, causing about $110,234 in damage.
The seating installation was rescheduled for April 30, 2010, and HORTON again set fire to the church sanctuary, causing about $118,270 in damage, according to the plea agreement.
The information seeks to have HORTON forfeit $78,769 to the government as proceeds of illegal activity.
The plea agreement states HORTON owes restitution as follows: $218,505 to the church’s contractor or the contractor’s insurer; $10,000 to Gardendale First Baptist Church for $5,000 insurance deductible payments for each fire; $2,536 to a flooring contractor and $81,199 to Sauder Manufacturing.
The arson charges carries a mandatory minimum prison sentence of five years. Both the arson and the mail fraud charges carry a maximum 20-year prison sentence.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Secret Service, Gardendale Police and the Alabama State Fire Marshal investigated the case. It is being prosecuted by Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Davis A. Barlow.
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The Office of U.S. Attorney
Joyce White Vance
Natural Disaster Fraud Hotline
Members of the public can report fraud, waste, abuse or allegations of mismanagement involving disaster relief operations through the Hotline, toll free, at (866) 720-5721 or the Disaster Fraud e-mail at email@example.com. Please see the News Release Justice Department Officials Raise Awareness of Disaster Fraud Hotline