Christopher Blake Cox, 28, 1239 Mullins Lane, Rogersville, was formally charged Saturday with two counts of arson and theft.
He became a suspect during the second fire in the early morning hours of Dec. 9 when he was spotted by a Hawkins County deputy near the fire scene pouring gas into his stalled pickup, which had just run dry moments after the store was set ablaze using gasoline.
The gasoline used to start the second fire at the old store at the intersection of Main Street and Phipps Bend Road had been stolen from the Surgoinsville fire station, police said.
The first fire
On Dec. 7 shortly before 5 a.m., Cox allegedly piled up leaves and dry grass on the floor in the store.
Police said Cox then went back to the fire station, started up the fire truck and waited for the fire to be paged out by Hawkins County central dispatch.
A passing motorist reported the fire, and Cox was the first firefighter on the scene of the first fire, but he wasn't suspected by police at that time.
The first fire did little more than leave a scorched place on the floor.
The second fire
On Dec. 9 at about 1:30 a.m., a second fire was reported by a passing motorist at the same store.
When Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Stacy Vaughan turned the corner from Highway 11-W south onto Phipps Bend Road toward the reported fire, he observed Cox pouring gasoline from a gas can into his pickup on the side of Phipps Bend Road.
What police later learned was that Cox had returned to the abandoned store that morning and set a second fire inside, this time using gasoline from a gas can he'd taken from the fire station.
But, as Cox was leaving the scene immediately after setting the fire, his pickup ran out of gas, and when Vaughan came by Cox was pouring the same gas he'd used to start the second fire into his pickup, police said.
Vaughan stopped and asked Cox if he'd seen a fire, and Cox reportedly replied he hadn’t seen or heard about the fire. But Cox carries a fire department pager and should have heard the fire dispatched by that time.
After getting his truck started, Cox followed Vaughan to the fire scene, and Cox asked Vaughan if he should go get a fire truck.
Cox becomes a suspect
It just so happened that a plant employee at the Phipps Bend Industrial Park who had reported the first fire drove by during the second fire.
Surgoinsville Police Department Chief James Hammonds told the Times News that Cox became a suspect after that witness told Vaughan that he recognized Cox as being the first person on the scene of the first fire.
Suspicions against Cox increased after it was determined the second fire was started with gasoline moments before Cox was observed a short distance away while using a gas can.
Cox was later interviewed by Hammonds and signed a statement admitting to setting both fires and was charged with two counts of arson, as well as misdemeanor theft for taking the gasoline.
"He started off not wanting to admit it, but admitted driving by before the fire," Hammonds told the Times News on Monday. "Then he said he stopped to pee. I said, 'You stopped to pee and ...' and he said, 'Well, I set the fires.' "
Why did he set the fires?
Hammonds: "Just bored. He said he had a lot of stress going on in his life and he was bored, and he would get out at night and ride around."
The main damage was done to a counter in the store. The owner reportedly indicated the old counter has some historic value. There used to be a grocery store there, and at some point there was also a post office in the building.
Cox was a probationary member of the fire department and had only been a member for a couple of months.
Aside from the arson and theft charges, Vaughan charged Cox with driving on a suspended license.
Hammonds said his license wasn't suspended when Cox became a member of the fire department, but it was subsequently suspended for failure to pay child support.
Cox was released from the Hawkins County Jail on Monday on $5,000 bond and is scheduled to appear in Hawkins County Sessions Court in Church Hill on Jan. 22.