Pippin charged in courthouse arson, death threat

By Brandon Evans | Published Saturday, October 6, 2012

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SECURITY CAMERAS – Johnny R. Pippin Jr., 26, walks through the courthouse basement Sept. 4, which is the same day a county employee found a handwritten death threat against County Attorney James Stainton scrawled on a bathroom wall. Pippin was slated to appear in County Court Sept. 5. The image is from security camera footage in the courthouse and was released by the Wise County Sheriff’s Office. Submitted photo

A Decatur man allegedly threatened to kill County Attorney James Stainton and then set fire to the Wise County Courthouse using a combination of toxic chemicals all in an attempt to avoid a 50-day jail sentence.

Johnny R. Pippin Jr.

Johnny R. Pippin Jr., 26, of Decatur has been charged with arson, endangering a child and retaliation in connection with a Sept. 5 fire at the Wise County Courthouse in Decatur.

The charges were filed Tuesday after Justice of the Peace Terri Johnson issued warrants and set Pippin’s bond at $750,000 on the arson, $50,000 on endangering a child and $200,000 on retaliation – a total of $1 million.

“He was upset that he had to do 50 days in jail for a misdemeanor weapons charge (he was found with a switchblade),” said Wise County Sheriff David Walker. “He tried to do a scare tactic on the county attorney, which obviously didn’t work. Then he thought he could set a fire at the courthouse to get out of it.

“If he’d just been an upstanding gentleman and taken his licks, he’d have almost served his 50 days by now and be released. Now if he’s convicted, he might go away for a long time.”

Arson, a first-degree felony, carries a punishment of five to 99 years in prison if convicted. Retaliation or obstruction of justice is a third-degree felony (two to 10 years), and endangerment to a child is a state jail felony (180 days to 2 years).

Pippin is accused of setting a fire in a third-floor bathroom of the courthouse that morning, forcing the evacuation of the building as a thick, white, acrid smoke spread through the third floor. Bailiff Dick Wood said the smoke smelled like chlorine. It was originally thought that someone had tossed a cigarette butt into the trash can, igniting plastic bags.

Firefighters used fans to clear smoke from the building, which remained closed for the rest of the day.

But when Decatur Fire Department personnel found a bowl containing a burning substance in the bottom of the trash can in that bathroom, they suspected arson and called in Wise County Investigator Sgt. Mike Neagle.

Walker said preliminary lab results show the burning chemicals to be a combination of chlorine tablets and brake fluid.

Neagle’s work revealed that the day before the fire, Sept. 4, a county employee had come across a handwritten message on the wall in a men’s restroom in the courthouse basement. The message contained a death threat against County Attorney James Stainton.

The note said, “James Statan the DA is a dead m-f-. I know what you drive …” It also contained other threats.

A review of security camera footage in the courthouse yielded video evidence that a male subject, later identified as Pippin, had carried a backpack into the courthouse that day. He apparently set up the bowl and chemicals in the trash can of the third floor bathroom at about 4:30 the afternoon before his trial. He knew the bathrooms had already been cleaned earlier in the afternoon, at about 2 or 2:30.

“It’s a good thing the fire didn’t start during the night or it could have done a lot of damage to the courthouse,” Walker said.

Still, smoke from burning chlorine corrodes metal it comes in contact with, which might mean more damage to parts of the third floor. Burning chlorine also releases dioxins, an extremely carcinogenic substance.

The endangerment to a child charge stemmed from the fact that Pippin’s 9-month-old baby was on the third floor of the courthouse when the chemical fire sparked.

Pippin was listed on the docket for Sept. 5 in the County Court, where Stainton was prosecuting him on the misdemeanor weapons charge. At this scheduled court appearance, Pippin was due to be sentenced to 50 days in jail.

“Every prosecutor I know has had some form of threat made against them,” Stainton said. “I knew that coming into this position. But this is the first time I’ve had this kind of threat. I’ve had people yell at me before but nothing like this.

“But some people that commit crimes don’t like to take responsibility. They like to blame other people.”

Stainton said his office didn’t treat Pippin differently than anyone else they prosecute. Pippin is already on felony probation for burglary of a habitation he committed back in 2004. His possession of a prohibited weapon was a violation of probation and could have led to prison time. Instead, Stainton offered him the 50-day sentence.

“A lot of times when somebody has a hiccup when they are on probation we try to give them a 60- or 90-day sentence to give them a taste of it, to send a message,” Stainton said. “It’s usually effective, and they don’t have any more problems.

“This isn’t personal to me. It’s business. And if Pippin has to come before me again, I’ll still treat him just like anyone else.”

The chemical fire in the courthouse might not be Pippin’s first rodeo with arson.

A citizen informed investigators Pippin had set the courthouse fire, as well as other fires, as a diversion for other intended criminal activity.

Investigators found bowls, brake fluid and chlorine tablets that matched those used in the courthouse at Pippin’s home on Halsell Street in Decatur. They also found those same items at a fire set earlier this year at a home in the 700 block of S. Trinity St. Due to this evidence, more charges are possibly pending against Pippin.

After Pippin was sentenced in the weapons case, investigators took the information gleaned through interviews, search warrants and informants and interviewed him. Texas Ranger Jim Holland said Pippin admitted that he had delivered the bowl with a chemical mixture to the third floor of the courthouse, causing the fire.

He also confessed that he had written the death threat against Stainton, and blamed the prosecutor for his troubles.

Pippin remains in the Wise County Jail – but as the current charges against him are felonies, he will no longer be prosecuted by Stainton, but by District Attorney Greg Lowery.

STANDING HIS GROUND – County Attorney James Stainton stands in front of his office at the county courthouse this week. He said every prosecutor he knows has had threats made againt them, but this was a first for him. “This isn’t personal to me. It’s business,” he said. “And if Pippin has to come before me again, I’ll still treat him just like anyone else.” Messenger photo by Joe Duty

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