Surrounded by heightened security, arson suspect Jesse Lee Payne, 34, of Vigo County was led into the Parke County Courthouse in Rockville on Thursday afternoon by Sheriff's deputies to be charged with one count of arson and one count of attempted arson.
With emotions running high in the community, the Parke County Sheriff's Department and the Rockville City Police were out in force at the courthouse for Payne's arraignment for the arson of the Bridgeton Covered Bridge on April 28.
"We took more than normal precautions to ensure things went smoothly today," Sheriff Charles Bolinger said. He commended the officers involved in the case, especially Detective Justin Cole and Chief Deputy Eddie McHargue, for their efforts in gathering evidence. Bolinger said that the high profile case has not created any security problems for the department, adding that even with the community's anxiety "there have not been any threats against Payne."
Inside the courtroom Circuit Court Judge Sam Swaim read the two Class B felony charges to Payne, who remained silent but couldn't keep his feet still during the proceedings.
The first count of arson was in the matter of the Bridgeton Covered Bridge, while a second count of attempted arson was for the Mansfield Covered Bridge.
Payne was discovered by law enforcement personnel in Mansfield around 1:30 a.m. the morning of the 28th.
After briefly being questioned, he was taken into custody for violating the conditions of parole from a February 2005 early release from jail for a prior conviction. He remained in custody during the arson investigation as a person of interest until Thursday's arraignment.
Prosecutor Tony Cvengros has declined to comment about the facts of the case, the charges or Payne's past criminal record in an effort to keep the trial in Parke County.
"I trust that the people of Parke County will be fair and keep an open mind regarding the facts of the case," Cvengros said. "I take this as an attack on the history of Parke County and will seek the maximum penalties possible upon conviction."
If convicted of the two Class B felonies, Payne could face consecutive sentences of six to 20 years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine for each count.
Payne appeared in court without an attorney. While being questioned about his financial status for retaining legal counsel Payne told the court that he had not been employed since being released from jail in February and that his S.S.I. disability checks had been "cut off," leaving him with no income.
Judge Swaim, declaring Payne indigent, appointed attorney Larry Thomas as defense council and entered a plea of not guilty on behalf of the defendant.
A cash bond of $50,000 was set and Payne was remanded into the custody until he can bond out. The option of paying 10 percent bond will not be allowed in this case, the judge said. Payne's next court date is 1:30 p.m. on June 30.
The investigation of both the Bridgeton fire and the attempted arson of the Mansfield bridge continues. The official findings of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agency's investigation into the crime scene evidence should be available May 25.
The Prosecutor's office has confirmed that Payne remains a person of interest in an earlier arson investigation of the Jeffries Ford Bridge destroyed by fire in April 2002.