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Wednesday, 31 March 2010 15:01

Arson case thickens plot in sheriff’s race

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A fire at the business of a Jackson County sheriff candidate last week has cast a shadow over the race.

Robin Gunnels, owner of Custom Truck Covers in Sylva and a Democratic candidate for sheriff, believes the attack on his business was no coincidence.

“There’s things that led up to this that lead me to believe it was politically motivated,” Gunnels said.

The fire originated in a garage where Gunnels stored his campaign materials, which were destroyed in the blaze. With his signs gone and his business shut down, Gunnels is wondering how he will afford to run the rest of his campaign for sheriff. Gunnels insurance does not cover fire.

The Sylva Police Department confirmed last week that the fire is under investigation for arson.

“The fire is suspicious. There’s no doubt about that,” Sylva Fire Chief Mike Beck said.

The fire was discovered in the middle of the night on Sunday, March 21, when Sgt. George Lamphiear noticed water running out from under garage doors at Custom Truck Covers on East Main Street in Sylva. Lamphiear looked closer and saw heavy smoke inside the business. He called dispatch, and the Sylva, Cullowhee, and Savannah fire departments responded.

“The fire was about out by the time the fire departments got there, because it had taken out a water line or two,” said Beck. The fact that the fire had burned through the water line may have saved the building.

Gunnels said he got a call from Lamphiear notifying him his business was on fire. By the time he arrived at the scene, the damage was done.

Gunnels said he has no idea who started the fire, but after weeks of receiving harassing messages at his home and business, he is sure it is connected to the sheriff’s race.

Gunnels was once a lieutenant with the Jackson Sheriff’s Office but left the force soon after Ashe came into office eight years ago.

Gunnels estimates he lost $150,000 of property that include his election materials and parts he sells at his shop. Because many of the parts Custom Truck Covers sells were plastic, almost nothing was salvageable.

“I’ve lost a lot of equipment and I’m just trying to salvage what I can,” Gunnels said.

Gunnels said the fire would not deter him from pursuing the sheriff’s race, and he thanked the Sylva Police Department for their fast response.

“George was on top of his job. He saw something that wasn’t right, and he acted,” Gunnels said.

The Sylva Police Department has advertised a $2,500 reward for information.

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