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Courthouse Latest Target in County’s Tradition of Arson

May 14, 1990 GMT

ALTAMONT, Tenn. (AP) _ Dozens of folks from this mountain hamlet jammed into a tiny church last week to find out why the Grundy County Courthouse had burned down.

When District Attorney General Bill Pope Jr. announced it was arson, the crowd of men in baseball caps and women carrying babies heaved a long, sad sigh.

Their worst fears had been confirmed. The destruction of the 105-year-old courthouse added one more chapter to the county’s embarrassing history of arson.

″It’s just another happening that puts Grundy County in the news media, something bad happening,″ said Sheriff Aubrey Harper.

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A pair of brothers fresh from a brush with the law were charged in the May 3 courthouse blaze.

The case seems part of a history of suspicious fires and explosions stretching nearly from the turn of the century in this old mining county on the Cumberland Plateau northwest of Chattanooga.

An arson blaze on April 27, 1935, leveled 10 buildings in Tracy City, causing more than $100,000 in damage and nearly wiping out the business district.

On Aug. 24, 1971, when the 100-year-old L&N Depot in Tracy City burned down, then-Sheriff Henry Morrison said it was the county’s 22nd fire of the year. Most were blamed on arson.

In May 1976, two men were charged with torching the town’s James K. Shook School, a massive 86-year-old building that boasted a turret and a clock tower.

Newspaper offices have been a favorite target. The Grundy County Times office was set afire in September 1915, and the Grundy County Herald was destroyed by arson in 1978, 11 years after an explosion damaged that paper’s old office.

Sometimes revenge seems to be the motive. Other times it’s just plain vandalism.

Law enforcement authorities hesitate to label Grundy County a hotbed of suspicious fires.

″I’m not going to say that Grundy County is any different than any other rural county,″ said Bill Thompson, special agent in charge of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s eastern district. ″There are a ton of good people there.″

Still, the rugged county of 14,500 people has a certain notoriety.

Beyond arson, vandals seem especially fond of dynamite, probably because of the area’s coalfield history.

In 1965, ’67 and ’70, dynamite blasts destroyed or damaged water tanks in various parts of the county. Also in 1967, about 800 people lost water service after somebody blew up the Tracy City pumping station.

A Tracy City lumber yard was dynamited in 1969, and the next year a similar blast leveled a doctor’s clinic there.

Fires and bombings were so common at abandoned county schools in the ’70s that officials had a hard time getting insurance.

Said then-Superintendent Glenn Bonner: ″Just as soon as a building becomes vacant - boom 3/8″

In recent years, the county has become notorious as a hub for chop shops, places where stolen cars are stripped for parts that are resold.

Folks are still rankled by a 1988 newspaper story in which a Davidson County police officer said, ″If you don’t cut wood or steal trucks in Grundy County, you’re in bad shape.″

The chop shops sprang up in the 1960s after the coal mines closed, and they flourished despite major police raids in 1965, 1971 and 1979 that sent dozens of people to jail.

Harper contends stepped-up enforcement has put the business in decline. In 1987, he said, deputies recovered about 400 stolen cars; last year, the number had shrunk to under 50.

But Grundy County’s rough-and-tumble image lingers.

″In many respects, I think it is unfair,″ said Harper. ″But at the same time, I know that many things have happened here over the years that are still in people’s minds.″

The brothers charged in the courthouse fire, Brian Ellege, 23, and Steve Ellege, 21, had been released on bond on burglary charges the day before the fire. They were arrested May 8 and charged with arson and felony vandalism. The brothers deny setting the fire.

Authorities allege the two burned the building either out of revenge or in an effort to destroy their criminal records.

As much as anything, say some observers, that kind of attitude may explain why many buildings in Grundy County come to an incendiary end.

″Is there an attempt by wronged persons to administer justice more so in a rural county than in an urban county? Possibly, yes,″ said Thompson.

Said Harper: ″I think (rural) people probably take matters into their own hands a little faster.″