Originally created 01/19/99

Officials seek arson tips through billboards



WAYCROSS, Ga. -- Authorities hope to light a fire under would-be tipsters with a billboard publicizing state rewards for information about arson cases in Ware County.

Ware County has had a dozen unsolved arsons since November 1997. Officials recently put up the billboard in Waycross on one of the most heavily traveled routes in Southeast Georgia.

The billboard promises a reward up to $10,000 and lists the toll-free telephone number for Georgia's 24-hour Arson Hot Line.

"We are hoping that the billboard will help encourage more people to call in with information about arsons," said Waycross Fire Chief Donald Kovacs. "The reward program has helped us solve cases in the past."

The billboard is one of four in Georgia, sponsored free of charge by Georgia Arson Control Inc., a statewide non-profit association of insurance and fire officials working with state Insurance, Safety and Fire Commissioner John Oxendine.

Mr. Oxendine said the billboard program, initiated last year, is part of an ongoing statewide public awareness and education campaign to battle arson.

Lt. Tony Walsh, fire marshal for the Waycross Fire Department, said since the billboard went up, officials received at least one "very good tip."

Besides property damage, arson can be deadly. An arson-slaying case in Coffee County from three years ago remains unsolved.

On Jan. 28, 1996, the Rev. John Eaton, a 72-year-old retired pastor, died of smoke inhalation when he ran inside his rural Bethel home after he and his wife discovered it ablaze.

Authorities have not determined the motive. The case remains under investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Coffee County Sheriff's Office.

First-degree arson is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a $50,000 fine, according to Georgia law.

There were 3,500 arsons statewide in 1997, according to the most recent statistics available. Five people died.

Although some fire departments use their own personnel, Mr. Oxendine's office is the main investigator of arsons in Georgia. There are 17 state arson investigators and three K-9 units.

But tips from the public are "the most common way that we get the information and evidence we need for convictions in arson cases," Mr. Oxendine said. "Either the arsonist will brag about it to someone or neighbors will see something and those people will call in a tip."

Rewards up to $10,000 are available. Authorities have paid out $472,750 in rewards since the hot line program was started in 1979 by Georgia's insurance industry, Mr. Oxendine said.

Rewards totaling $43,500 were given out during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 1998.

Tipsters may remain anonymous.