Update: Arrest made in Athens motel fire

Scene of fatal Monday motel fire on Atlanta Highway.

 ATHENS, Ga. -- A 34-year-old man is facing a felony charge in connection with an intentionally-set fire early this morning at a westside motel that killed his girlfriend

Athens-Clarke County police said that Richard Ashley McGaha was charged with second-degree criminal damage to property for setting the fire at America’s Best Inns and Suites on Atlanta Highway that killed the woman, also 34. Authorities are withholding the victim’s name until her next of kin are notified.

The fire continued to be investigated to see whether further charges were warranted, said Maj. Mark Sizemore, commander of the Athens-Clarke County police Centralized Criminal Investigations Division.

The fire was reported at 12:47 a.m., and when emergency crews arrived they found one of the motel rooms fully engulfed in flames.

McGaha told officials that his girlfriend was in the second-floor room, according to a police incident report.

Other motel guests were evacuated while firefighters knocked down the blaze, which did not spread to any of the other rooms, according to said Jeff Scarbrough, chief of the Athens-Clarke County Fire and Emergency Services Department.

The room in which the woman perished was destroyed, officials said, and other rooms suffered smoke and water damage.

Police would not say how McGaha started the fire, citing the ongoing investigation.

McGaha has served several state prison sentences for convictions on drug and burglary offenses in Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections.

Clarke County Coroner Sonny Wilson said that the victim suffered burns, but it was not immediately clear if that was the cause of death.

The victim’s body was taken to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation State Crime to be autopsied, but the results were unknown as of early this afternoon, Sizemore said.

Wilson, who was at the fire scene, said it was fortunate that there were no additional victims.

“The room was gutted,” he said. “It was a really big fire, with flames coming out of the roof. We’re lucky we didn’t have a bigger problem than we did. The firefighters did a real good job.”

McGaha of McNutt Creek Road in Bogart, was booked into the Clarke County Jail at 8:51 a.m.

He is being held without bail.

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