0

Officer honored for discovering arson, murder

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Most of the Trick-or-Treaters were done for the night, when the police cruiser stopped at the light, at the corner of North Main Street and Fayetteville Road.

Patrolling an area where a lot of officers, from a lot of departments, spend a lot of time patrolling, Jonesboro Police Officer Richard Jones could have kept going. He could have gone straight.

But he turned.

"I smelled the smoke," he explained.

There weren't any flames that he could see. As Jones rolled slowly down Fayetteville Road, he saw smoke rising through the dark, and, at about 11 p.m., on Oct. 31, he found the house on fire.

Firefighters responded a few minutes after his emergency call, at about the time the fire burst through the roof, totally destroying the inside of the house. The fire was put out in about 15 minutes.

On Saturday, however, Jones -- a new officer, with close-cropped hair and a trimmed, black mustache -- didn't seem to understand why he was getting an award: He was patrolling. He found a house on fire. He called the fire department.

But, at a simple ceremony wedged between an annual photo shoot and a swearing-in Saturday, Chief Wayne Rowland handed him an award.

"If you hadn't smelled the smoke," the chief said, "and taken the effort to find the house, a lot of important evidence would have been lost in the fire."

Jones didn't just find a fire, on Halloween, he found the scene of an arson and the scene of the city's first murder in more than a decade.

While neighbors didn't notice the house smoking beneath two tall trees, Jones, formerly of Thomaston, Ga., was the first one to reach the home in which 68-year-old Geneva Strickland had been murdered, and her house set on fire around her. Because the fire was so quickly reported and so quickly put out, police and state investigators have the evidence they hope will connect them to whoever committed the murder and set the fire.

When firefighters got inside the home, there was evidence of accelerants that immediately led them to suspect arson. When they found Strickland, there was evidence that immediately led them to believe Strickland wasn't killed by the fire, but was murdered earlier.

For that, Rowland thanked Jones, giving him a certificate and a decorative clock.

Homicide and arson investigators are still looking for information about the Jonesboro murder.

Anyone with information about the fire can call (800) 282-5804, and may receive an award of up to $10,000. Anyone with information about the murder is asked to call the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's anonymous tip line at (800) 597-TIPS.