The day our 1825 courthouse was firebombed

Tue, 04/07/2009 - 3:31pm
By: Carolyn Cary

The day our 1825 courthouse was firebombed The Fayette County Courthouse was firebombed the night of Easter Sunday, April 11, 1982. The time of the photo is probably 11 p.m. The reconstruction began in August, 1982, at a total cost of $1.1 million and was rededicated on July 3, 1983. Photos/Court Evidence Photos

The day was Easter Sunday, April 11, 1982. The time was about 10:30 p.m.

Two criminals from Atlanta proceeded to break into the oldest courthouse building in Georgia. One of them, a Charles Edward Harris by name, had a trial coming up the next day in this building. He had burglarized two new homes under construction on Kite Road, in the north end of the county.

He was seen carrying out this nefarious act by a neighbor, who phoned the sheriff’s office. Then sheriff, Randall Johnson, who lives somewhat near the area was called and he set out in his car. He came upon Harris, who had hit a woman on a bad curve and wrecked his car. Johnson proceeded to chase him on foot. He chased him to the Fulton County line and then lost him.

However, Fayette County had the car and traced the owner to a man in Atlanta, who gave the name of the man he had loaned it to, Charles Harris. Harris was subsequently arrested and charged with two counts of burglary. The court date was April 12, 1982.

Harris took along an acquaintance, a Henry Turner, to assist in trying to get rid of this burglary charge.

According to Turner’s account, the two men borrowed two five-gallon plastic jugs from a friend, promising to bring them back later. At some point, they drove to a gas station on Cleveland Avenue and filled the jugs with gasoline. They then headed for Fayetteville and parked on the southside of the courthouse by the Methodist church. Harris then climbed up on the air conditioning unit and broke out the window leading down to the basement. Harris then opened all the doors up to the third floor, with Turner following. They carried the two five-gallon plastic jugs filled with gas up to the courtroom.

Turner said further that Harris had made a Molotov-cocktail earlier, but left it in the car. After spreading the gas all over the courtroom, they started to leave. Charles told Henry to stay there and he would be back in a minute.

Henry told the detectives that he was standing at the south door of the third floor with the door open. The next thing he heard was glass breaking, and then an explosion. The explosion knocked Turner down the steps to the second floor landing. He was on fire, but knew he had to get out of the courthouse before it went completely up in flames. He made his way back to the window where they broke in, climbed out and started running across the courthouse lawn where he was stopped by Deputy David Moorman.

Turner said he believes that Harris tried to kill him by leaving him in the courtroom. He also believed that Harris went downstairs to the car, got the Molotov-cocktail, lit it, and threw it through one of the third story windows, igniting the gas, thus causing the explosion and fire.

This information is taken from Fayette County Detective Jim Nations account, file number 02-0457-04-82.

During the time the explosion was taking place, Harris had decided to abandon his car and hitch a ride, which he promptly got. Sheriff Johnson had put out an all-points bulletin and Harris was caught in Riverdale.

Turner ended up spending over a month in the burn unit at Grady Hospital in Atlanta with third degree burns. Turner was 27 years old at this time, and Harris was 37 years old.

Initially Harris was charged with Burglary and with Arson in the First Degree.

At the time of his trial in October, the charge was Arson in the Second Degree.

Bail was set at $250,000 and because Harris had caused harm to “her majesty,” the pride and joy of Fayette Countians, there were several local folks, who had money, who tried to get him out. Had they been allowed to do so, I’m afraid bodily harm might have befallen him. So the sheriff had to move him to county jails all over north Georgia, until the trial began in October. One sticky legal rule, however, didn’t help - it seems that every time a prisoner is moved, he has the right to make a phone call. And Harris always exercised this right.

His trial was held in Fayette County Superior Court, which found him guilty on October 6, 1982. He was given 10 years to serve, but was released after serving just 18 months, from April 27, 1982 to December 13, 1984.

The courthouse was insured in the Spring of 1982 for $350,000, plus an additional $150,000 for contents.

The local insurance agent convinced the insurance company to increase that insurance coverage to $750,000. It cost $1.1 million to put it back.

The commissioners at that time were Jerry Barronton, chair, Rose Marie Harper, Tom Harris, Raymon Johnson, and Mike Reid.

On the first Monday night after the fire, I got most of them together at Melear’s Restaurant. Several wanted to use the insurance funds to tear down the building and build a park, as well as a new administration building somewhere else. I pleaded with them to reconsider, and after meeting on Tuesday evening, and on Wednesday evening, they finally said, “Well, Carolyn, if you want it put back, you put it back.”

Next week we will tell about the efforts of an untold number of citizens, far and wide, who made that possible.

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