Mar 29, 2010 1:41 PM by Katie Durio
Former Welsh Chief of Police, Ben Thomas Richard was convicted of felony Arson with Intent to Defraud by a jury of six members on Wednesday evening. The case originated from the fire that destroyed Richard's home in Roanoke on Mach 13, 2008. Richard reportedly saw moderate smoke in the laundry room of his manufactured home, immediately ran from the home and called 911. He made no attempts to determine the source of smoke, or to remedy the problem. Jeff Davis Sheriff Deputy Doug Britnell was only three blocks from the home when he was dispatched there. Britnell reported that when he looked up, he saw smoke in the sky, and when he arrived one minute later, the home was fully engulfed, and flames were shooting out of the front door. Chief David Brown of the Roanoke Fire Department investigated the fire and found that the story provided by Ben Richard was not consistent with the evidence at the fire scene. Based on these suspicious circumstances, Chief Brown called the Louisiana State Fire Marshal's office, who assigned Investigator Nick Heinen to the case. Heinen came to the scene and determined that the area of lowest and most extensive damage was the center of the living room, not the laundry room as Richard reported. He systematically ruled out every other cause of fire, including accidental or electric. He determined that the cause of the fire was an open flame purposefully being exposed to a combustible item. No accelerant was found. By Richard's own admission, he had not smoked in the home, did not use candles, and he was the only one home when the fire started. An important aspect of the investigation included a photograph of the live fire that had been published in the Jennings Daily News. Heinen was intrigued to see the picture because it confirmed his findings at the scene. Heinen explained that because of the nature of his job, he does not get to see the live fire often, that by the time he arrives, the fire has been put out. The picture was used during the trial and introduced into the court record.
Both Britnell and Heinen testified at the trial. Also testifying was Beau Hearod, owner of Jeff Davis Insurance, who testified that the home was insured as a result of the mortgage owed on the property, and that the mortgage had in fact been paid off as a result of the fire, as required by the terms of the policy.
Richard did take the stand on his own behalf and maintained that he saw smoke in the laundry room and never saw smoke or fire in the living room. When asked how he explained the inconsistencies between his version and Heinen's findings, he simply offered that he didn't know. The jury deliberated for approximately five hours before reaching their unanimous verdict. A pre-sentence investigation will be conducted by the Department of Public Safety, and a report of the investigation will be presented to the Honorable Steve Gunnell for consideration in his sentence, which is scheduled for June 2, 2010. It is Richard's first felony conviction. Richard had been a volunteer for the Welsh Fire Department in the late 1990's, and was the Chief of Police of Welsh from 2001-2005.