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Deputies flee search site as mobile home catches fire

March 6th, 2007 4:48 am by Jeff Bobo

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ROGERSVILLE - The state fire marshal is investigating a mobile home fire that occurred Monday afternoon while Hawkins County deputies were inside conducting a cocaine raid.

Hawkins County Sheriff Roger Christian said his "gut feeling" tells him the fire was just a coincidence, but he's leaving that investigation up to the fire marshal.

The investigation that concerned the Hawkins County Sheriff's Office Monday involved approximately 33 grams of crack cocaine seized from a mobile home at 607 Petersburg Road just south of Rogersville shortly before the residence went up in flames, Christian said.

The mobile home was the residence of Joe Leeper, but it was Leeper's son who was implicated in the alleged cocaine trade.

Deputies with the HCSO Narcotics Unit were on their way to execute a search warrant at the Leeper residence Monday shortly after 1 p.m. when the suspect, Robert Arthur Leeper, 18, of Greeneville, and two alleged accomplices passed the deputies in a vehicle headed in the other direction.

The deputies turned their vehicle around and apprehended Robert Leeper and his friends when they stopped at a nearby market. The other suspects arrested were Zack Robert Wells, 19, of Greeneville, and Kenneth Eugene Monroe, 20, of Knoxville.

Those three suspects were allegedly found in possession of about 10 grams of marijuana in the vehicle.

After they'd been taken to jail, the Narcotics Unit deputies went to the mobile home at 607 Petersburg Road and executed the search warrant. Christian said Joe Leeper, who is not suspected of any wrongdoing, arrived home at almost the same time as the deputies.

There were four deputies as well as a Rogersville Police Department drug-sniffing dog and its handler inside the mobile home when the fire broke out. Joe Leeper was alone outside.

"They were in the north end of the mobile home searching, and they did discover 33 grams of crack," Christian said. "Continuing their search, one of the deputies heard a ‘whooshing' sound and happened to look down the hallway in the direction of the southern end of the mobile home, and it was on fire. Needless to say, they vacated the mobile home rather quickly."

Christian said all but one of the officers utilized a back door to get out. The other deputy put his hands over his face and ran through the flames out the front door.

No injuries were reported.

The officers later said they'd observed that the interior of the residence was very warm when they entered, and they also smelled kerosene, which was probably emanating from a kerosene heater at the south end of the home.

At this time Christian believes the fire was accidental and caused by the kerosene heater, but he said he's anxious to hear what the fire marshal has to say about it.

"Some of the deputies indicated they felt like it was maybe too much of a coincidence for this fire to break out while they're in there," Christian said. "My gut feeling is it was just an unusual coincidence because Joe Leeper wouldn't have burned down his own home, and the boys wouldn't have staged a fire knowing that the father was returning. And the drugs were inside the residence.

"We'll let the fire marshal sort that part of it out."

The cocaine seized had a street value of about $3,300.

Christian said this investigation was prompted by a tip from an informant who said Robert Leeper and his alleged accomplices visit Leeper's father's house from time to time to sell drugs from the residence.

All three were charged with possession of cocaine with intent to deliver, simple possession of marijuana, casual exchange of marijuana, and possession of drug paraphernalia. They were each lodged in the Hawkins County Jail without bond.

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