Sunday, June 23, 2024

114 West Elm Street
Graham, NC 27253
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One man, three teens arrested for setting fires at Culp Mill, Green Level house

Juveniles now in juvenile detention facilities after first court appearances Tues.; motive unknown; sheriff’s office still seeking info on third fire, at Carolina Mills

Local law enforcement officials have apprehended a 22-year-old Graham resident and three juveniles for two fires that appear to have been intentionally set in at a vacant Culp Weaving facility in Graham and an unoccupied home in the town of Green Level.

In the meantime, the office of Alamance County’s sheriff is actively seeking leads to a more recent blaze that broke out at a former Carolina Mills building near the unincorporated community of Hopedale.

UPDATE AFTER THE PRINT EDITION: Three men arrested for Carolina Mill fire, make first court appearances Thursday afternoon.  See separate story here:

The Culp Mill building was declared a total loss by Graham fire chief Tommy Cole after a three-alarm blaze tore through parts of the building that had already been damaged by an even larger fire a year earlier, in October 2022.

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The building had been largely vacant, although some portions were allegedly being used for storage.  Meanwhile, the property is in the process of being foreclosed on by county government for unpaid taxes.  [See separate story from Nov. 30 edition.]

Arrested last Wednesday by the Alamance County sheriff’s deputies  was Wayland Heath Phillips, white, male, 22, of 601 Pomeroy Street, Graham. As of Friday late afternoon, he was still in the Alamance County jail, now under a $100,000 bond (reduced from the original amount of $400,000).

Wayland Heath Phillips

Phillips has been charged with two counts each of felony breaking and entering and felony burning of certain buildings involving two separate fires – one at the former Culp textile plant, as well as a house fire in Green Level a night after the Graham mill fire.


Charges, court appearances of three juveniles

Similar charges – referred to as “juvenile petitions” in the juvenile court system – have been filed against three juvenile males – 13, 14, and 15, all Hispanic – who were allegedly also involved in setting both fires. Two of the juveniles live in Green Level, the other in Burlington.

Miguel Diaz Centeno, 13, Hispanic male, had his first appearance in Alamance County juvenile court, via a video hearing, on Tuesday morning.  He is currently being held in a juvenile detention center at an undisclosed location.

Centeno is charged with three felony counts: allegedly burning an uninhabited residence at 910 Apple Blossom Lane in Burlington on November 12; felony breaking and entering into the former Culp Mill at 300 East Parker Street on November 12; and burning a warehouse at 300 East Parker Street on the same date, Alamance County chief district court Brad Allen, Sr. said Tuesday during the video hearing.  Centeno said during the video hearing that he is currently enrolled at Woodlawn Middle School. (At a press conference that afternoon a fourth charge, felony breaking and entering into the Green Level house, was also listed.)

Giovanni Jesus Gonzales Cruz, 14, Hispanic male, also had his first appearance in juvenile court Tuesday morning via a video hearing, as he is also being held at an undisclosed juvenile detention center.

Cruz is charged with three felony counts: setting fire to a vacant storage building at 204 North Graham Hopedale Road in Burlington (which is the address of the former Western Electric building) at 11:30 p.m. on November 24; setting fire to the unoccupied home at 910 Apple Blossom Lane in Burlington (i.e., Green Level) at 7:00 p.m. on November 12; and felony setting fire to a “warehouse building” (the former Culp mill) at 300 East Parker Street at 6:00 p.m. on November 12, Allen said during the hearing.

(At a press conference that afternoon a fourth charge, felony breaking and entering into the Green Level house, was also listed.)

Also making his first appearance via a video hearing in Alamance County juvenile court Tuesday morning was Christian Najera, 15, Hispanic male.

As with the other two juveniles, Allen announced in open court on Tuesday morning that Najera is charged with three felony counts: burning the unoccupied house at 910 Apple Blossom Lane in Burlington at 7:00 p.m. on November 12; burning a warehouse at 300 East Parker Street in Graham at approximately 6:00 p.m. on November 12; and felony breaking and entering into a storage building at 300 East Parker Street on the same date. (At a press conference that afternoon a fourth charge, felony breaking and entering into the Green Level house, was also listed.)

Alamance County assistant district attorney Morgan Whitney told judge Allen that the state did not intend to present the cases to a grand jury for possible indictment in order to try them in adult court, i.e., Alamance County criminal superior court.

However, later in the day, at a press conference with the sheriff, Whitney’s boss, district attorney Sean Boone, said that no final decision had yet been made on whether to try the teens as adults.

They have been taken into custody and transferred to state juvenile detention facilities, according to the sheriff’s office. They made their appearances in juvenile court on Tuesday morning via video from their respective facilities.

During Tuesday’s news conference, Boone offered some insights into nature of the charges that have been filed against the four suspects.

“There is no specific arson charge among these charges,” he went on to concede, “[because] in North Carolina, arson charges are related to dwelling structures…But a suspect charged in North Carolina with burning a mill, for example, faces a Class F Felony, and the exposure for that is a maximum of 59 months.”

Boone added that, for the three juveniles, there’s no legal mandate in North Carolina automatically bump up their cases to the adult level for this category of felony. He conceded, however, that the law does offer the option to try the three teens as adults for these charges.

In addition to charges related to the fires, Phillips has also been charged with three counts of contributing to the delinquency of the three teenagers who have also been detained in the case.

During the news conference Tuesday afternoon, sheriff Johnson acknowledged that there were some lucky breaks in the two earlier fires that allowed law enforcement investigators to identify the suspects who are currently in custody.

“We were able to generate a person of interest who became a suspect and then confessed,” Johnson explained during the news conference. “That person confessed to the Culp fire and the fire in the Green Level residence.”

[Story continues below photos of the recent fires.]

In recent fires, arson expected

Culp Mill in Graham, Nov. 12


This house at 910 Apple Blossom Lane in Green Level was set ablaze on Nov. 13, one day after the Culp fire.
Alamance County sheriff Terry Johnson announced a $2,000 reward for information leading to the arrests of those connected with burning Carolina Mills near the Hopedale community.

As to a motive for their actions, that is still a mystery. Johnson admitted that it’s unclear, at this point, what prompted the alleged culprits to kindle these blazes.

“We know they started one as a gas fire,” the sheriff said, “and the other started when fire was set to some old papers…But we don’t know why they started the fires.”

Court officials are currently scheduled to determine whether the three juveniles can be released to their parents – on the condition that they have 24-hour electronic monitoring via ankle bracelets – until their next court date on January 9, 2024.

All three juvenile suspects face the same punishment range if they are found guilty (i.e., are “adjudicated delinquent”) on each of the charges: a minimum six months’ confinement in juvenile training center to a maximum sentence requiring them to remain in a juvenile detention center until their 18th birthdays, Allen said.

Each of the three juveniles’ court-appointed attorneys tried unsuccessfully Tuesday morning to convince the judge to release their clients to their parents, pending their next court dates on January 9.

Allen denied those requests for all three juveniles, saying they will remain in secure custody at least until December 12 to give the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) an opportunity to meet with the suspects’ parents to determine whether release – with 24-hour ankle monitoring – would be appropriate.


Sheriff solves two arsons while investigating a third

The sheriff’s department involvement began as a result of yet a third fire Saturday night, November 25, at another vacant mill building near Hopedale, the former Carolina Mills, which is also believed to be the victim of arson.

“We thought it was highly suspicious that two old mill buildings would be set on fire within two weeks,” sheriff Terry Johnson said in an interview Friday afternoon.

His detectives began an investigation, along with agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) and the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI), of the Hopedale fire.

Johnson said part of his department’s investigation led to canvassing information from residents near each of the fires.

Johnson observed that the Hopedale-area mill had no electricity and that there was no storm or lightning on the night of that fire, pretty well ruling out potential natural causes for the fire.

At the same time, he noted that investigators have been unable to search the Hopedale mill to verify arson since the fire because conditions are “too dangerous,” with walls unstable and potentially liable to collapse.

Johnson acknowledged that none of the four suspects has, so far, been tied to the latest fire at the decommissioned Carolina Mills facility. He added, however, that tips from general public could ultimately help its investigators get to the bottom of this conflagration.

“I’m, at this point, going to offer a $2,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the individuals responsible for the Carolina Mills fire,” he went on to announce during the news conference.


Yet another fire planned?

Sheriff’s deputies noted that at least one of the juvenile boys, a 14-year-old, has also been arrested recently by Burlington police for trespassing on the grounds of the former Western Electric plant in east Burlington.

Was he scoping out the location for another potential fire? Or even preparing to set one?

In actuality, according to charges that judge Allen read aloud in juvenile court Tuesday morning, the 14-year-old, Giovanni Gonzales Cruz, was charged with setting fire to a vacant storage building at 204 North Graham Hopedale Road (the location of the former Western Electric building) and two other felony counts.

Western Electric plant in Burlington also targeted

Johnson said Burlington’s investigation is continuing about the Western Electric trespass.  The Alamance News has been unable to reach anyone with the Burlington detective division about the Western Electric incident.

Johnson credited his deputies and detectives for their hard work “day and night” to develop leads and facts leading to the arrests in connection with the two arsons.

Johnson is also glad that the arrests may have short-circuited other fires.  “What else might they have done” if not caught and charged?” he asked.

He also noted the irony that his department’s work (on the Hopedale mill fire) had led to solving two other crimes, one of which (the Culp Mill fire, which is within Graham’s city limits) isn’t actually within his primary jurisdiction (i.e., the unincorporated portions of the county).

He said the investigation into the perpetrators of the Hopedale fire is ongoing.


Breaking Wed. afternoon

According to Emily Adkins, a spokesman for Burlington’s police department, the ongoing investigation into the fire in Green Level and Graham has also provided her agency with some new leads on a break-in that occurred at the city’s former Western Electric Facility on November 24 – corresponding to same date on which Giovanni Jesus Gonzales Cruz was charged, according to his juvenile court appearance, with setting fire to the facility.

Adkins said that, on Tuesday, the police department obtained arrest warrants against Phillips for breaking and entering and discharging a firearm within Burlington’s municipal limits. She also noted that a breaking and entering charge had been filed against Phillips’ alleged 14-year-old accomplice for his role in this same incident.

“We anticipate more charges tomorrow,” she went on to acknowledge on Wednesday.


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