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Two Coeburn men get jail for burning High Knob tower, must pay $523,851 restitution

Staff Report • Apr 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM

BIG STONE GAP — Two Coeburn men were sentenced to prison terms earlier this week for burning down the High Knob Observation Tower in 2007.

U.S. Attorney Julia C. Dudley said Nicholas Owens and Christopher Dominic Hyatt, both 24, were sentenced in U.S. District Court in Big Stone Gap on charges related to the Oct. 31, 2007, fire that destroyed the tower and heavily damaged a restroom facility at a separate site of the Jefferson National Forest’s Clinch Ranger District.

Last year, Hyatt pleaded guilty to one count of burning a federal structure and one count of making false statements to investigators. He was sentenced to three years and one month in federal prison and three years of supervised release.

On Jan. 20, Owens pleaded guilty to one count of burning buildings owned by the federal government, one count of arson within the special territorial jurisdiction of the United States, and one count of lying to investigators. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

Both men were also ordered to pay $523,851 in restitution.

“Whenever a historic structure like the High Knob Observation Tower is destroyed by a senseless act of violence, the entire community suffers,” Dudley said Wednesday. “Mr. Owens and Mr. Hyatt have been punished for their activities, and my hope is that now the community can come together, move forward and rebuild this beloved landmark.”

Owens confessed to setting fire to the tower in Wise County in the early morning hours of Halloween 2007. Both men confessed to setting fire to a restroom facility located in the Hanging Rock Recreation Area of Scott County.

Only days before setting fire to the tower, Owens was accepted as a novice member of the Coeburn Volunteer Fire Department. His probation period as a volunteer firefighter had scarcely begun before he conspired with Hyatt to set fire to the tower.

Initial public shock and outrage at the destruction of the tower blossomed into a grass-roots effort to rebuild the renowned structure. In 2008, U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher organized a task force to guide the fund-raising and rebuilding effort. A new tower is projected to cost nearly $600,000, and fund-raising efforts are still under way.

The case was investigated by U.S. Forest Service Special Agent Larry Fisher, the Wise County Sheriff’s Office, and the Norton and Coeburn police departments. The Coeburn and Norton VFDs also assisted in the investigation. U.S. Attorney Randy Ramseyer prosecuted the case.

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