Firefighters work at the scene of Monday afternoon’s mobile home fire near Rogersville. Photo by Erica Yoon.
ROGERSVILLE - A gasoline container placed too close to a kerosene heater is likely the cause of a fire that broke out Monday in a Hawkins County mobile home while deputies were inside searching for drugs.
The Hawkins County Sheriff's Office Narcotics Unit seized about 33 grams of crack cocaine Monday afternoon while executing a search warrant at 607 Petersburg Road just south of Rogersville, officers said. Then the residence burst into flames.
Four deputies, the Rogersville Police Department's drug sniffing dog and its handler were inside the residence searching at one end when officers heard a "whooshing" sound and noticed the other end of the residence had caught fire.
A state fire marshal investigation was incomplete Tuesday, but Sheriff Roger Christian said he'd been notified by the fire marshal a gasoline container may have been responsible for the fire.
Deputies were on their way to execute the search warrant Monday afternoon when they passed the three suspects traveling in a vehicle heading in the opposite direction. Deputies turned around, and the three were arrested when they stopped at a nearby market.
"Apparently our three suspects had been working on a four-wheeler Monday, and before they left they set the gas can inside the residence near the kerosene heater," Christian said Tuesday. "We can't say with certainty at this time, but what we think happened is that gas container got hot and built up pressure, and then popped while the officers were searching the residence. The officers observed that the inside of the residence was very warm, so that heater was probably turned up high.
"That would explain why the officers heard a ‘whooshing' sound right before they noticed the fire, and it would also explain why the fire spread so fast."
All but one deputy made it out the back door. The other deputy put his hands over his face and ran through the flames out the front door.
No injuries were reported, but the residence was a total loss.
The three suspects are Robert Arthur Leeper, 18, of Greeneville; Zack Robert Wells, 19, of Greeneville; and Kenneth Eugene Monroe, 20, of Knoxville. They each face several charges, the most serious of which is possession of cocaine with intent to deliver.
The residence belonged to Leeper's father, Joe Leeper, who was outside when the fire started. Detectives allege that the three suspects visited Joe Leeper's residence from time to time to sell drugs, but Joe Leeper is not suspected of any wrongdoing.
"When something like this happens, of course you're going to wonder if that fire wasn't intentional," Christian said. "It seemed like an awful big coincidence. But it looks like that's what it was - a coincidence.
"If they'd gotten there a few minutes later, they would have probably found the residence fully involved (in flames)."