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Roadside blazes led to arson charge, jail

Video: Watch it on the 3-11-10 newcast on

LLANO — Deputies investigating a string of suspicious roadside blazes during an overnight spree in 2009 have charged a 25-year-old man with one count of arson.

In all, 11 fires are believed to have been intentionally set. Deputies said DNA evidence helped crack the case.

William Gordon Harden of Llano remained in the Llano County Jail Thursday in lieu of posting a $5,000 bond. He was charged with arson  March 10, said Chief Deputy John Neff of the Llano County Sheriff’s Office.

Neff said deputies and firefighters from the Llano Volunteer Fire Department responded to several suspicious fires overnight Feb. 28-March 1, 2009, along county roads in central and western Llano County.

No structures were damaged during the fires, and there were no injuries, Neff said.

“It was just the roadside grass along the right of way,” he said. “The fires had the potential of spreading, but luckily that night there was no wind. The first responders were very good at putting the fires out.”

Neff said the fires were set at the height of last year’s drought, adding the dry grass quickly burned.

“There was one structure, a home, that was in danger of burning if the fire had spread in that direction,” he said.

Neff said the fires followed no particular pattern, though firefighters found themselves arriving at the scene of a blaze just moments after an arsonist had departed.

At the final fire, Neff said a deputy discovered a wrecked car with an intoxicated man inside, adding the deputy seized evidence from the accident and the fires.

The motorist was charged with driving while intoxicated and taken to jail.

“Several individuals were interviewed that provided information about the suspect and the fires,” he said. “Physical evidence at the crime scenes was submitted to the Department of Public Safety Crime Lab, and the analysis of that evidence connected the suspect to the crimes.”

Investigators were able to link the evidence to the fire scenes through DNA testing, Neff added.

It was that DNA testing — along with the state crime lab’s backlog of cases — that led to the yearlong investigation, Neff said.

“We were very thorough,” he said. “We would submit one test to the crime lab, get that back, then submit another item until we had probable cause.”

Harden was arrested at his home in the 700 block of Sheffield Avenue in Llano. If convicted, he could spend up to two years in a state jail and pay a fine not to exceed $10,000.

The current arson charge is from one of the fires, though Neff said investigators could file other charges in the case.

“We take these arson fires very seriously,” Neff said. “Just because it’s an arson that didn’t do a whole lot of damage in these cases, we’re still going to investigate them to the best of our ability.”