Birmingham cop charged in fire set in arson spree

June 1, 2012 - 4:35 PM

A Birmingham police officer was charged with arson Friday, accused of setting one of more than a dozen blazes that investigators said charred abandoned homes in a part of the city plagued by vacant houses.

Curtis Thornton, 27, of Warrior, worked as a patrol officer in a part of the city where authorities said 13 suspicious fires occurred in vacant homes last month.

Thornton was previously jailed on charges of setting fires near his home in northern Jefferson County, and police haven’t reported any blazes believed linked to the Birmingham spree since he was arrested.

"We are disappointed the evidence has led us to the wretched task of arresting someone we trusted to protect the lives and property of our citizens," Police Chief A.C. Roper said in a statement.

Roper said officers were working to finish investigations of the other fires, which remain unsolved but in which Thornton previously was described as a suspect.

Authorities didn’t reveal a possible motive in the spree, but police spokesman Sgt. Johnny Williams said authorities believe the fires were connected.

"We still have to investigate them separately and see where that leads us," he said.

Thornton’s attorney, Brett Hamock, said a grand jury would consider the charges.

"Right now he’s innocent," said Hamock.

The western section of Birmingham known as Ensley is dotted with vacant homes, a problem which authorities say can contribute to blight and crime by providing a haven for illicit actions like drug use and trafficking. The city has targeted about 240 vacant structures for demolition.

Cutting grass in his yard across the street from two vacant homes in the area, Herman Smith said something needs to be done about abandoned homes in the city.

"There are vacant houses all around here. Plenty of them," he said Thursday.

But torching houses to get rid of the eyesores isn’t the solution, he said.

"I was surprised when they said a cop might be doing it," said Smith.

The city has approved money to speed up the demolition of long-vacant homes, and crews this week began demolishing structures burned during the fire outbreak.

Thornton has been a Birmingham police officer since August 2010. He faces charges of arson, attempted arson and criminal mischief for his alleged involvement in five fires in Warrior, located about 25 miles north of Birmingham. Those blazes occurred shortly before a string of fires began in Birmingham.

A judge set a bond hearing for June 21 for Thornton, who was freed from the county jail on a bond of $315,000 for the Warrior charges but remains in the city jail on a bond of $150,000 for the Birmingham charge.

Thornton’s attorney contends bond is too high and puts an unfair burden on the man’s relatives.