A fatal fire in Valle Crucis, on Friday August 12, may have been intentionally set due to “owed money”. According to multiple published reports, court documents outline a timeline of the investigation. For a recap of events as they were unfolding at the time click here. To view a statement released by Sheriff Len Hagaman regarding the initial arrest click here.
Below are the details from court documents, according to multiple published reports:
The day of the fire, officers with the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office interviewed a witness that observed a black Isuzu Rodeo leaving the scene at a high rate of speed.
High Country Crime Stoppers received a tip on Wednesday August 17 that the suspect was currently at Cannon Hospital in Newland under an involuntary commitment.
On Thursday August 18, investigators obtained video from cameras at Valle Crucis School which showed a black Isuzu Rodeo leaving the scene at 5:32am, which was six minutes before the inital 911 call.
Investigators discovered on Tuesday August 23rd that Benjamin Williford had been released from involuntary commitment the day before, and was picked up by someone affiliated with an outpatient opioid treatment center.
Investigators were able to make contact with Williford's mother Melinda on Thursday August 25, after attempting the day before but found no one home. She told investigators that she had texted her son and that she knew that he “was safe and happy”. She refused to give officers her son’s cell phone number.
The next day (Friday August 26) she gave investigators the cell number, while informing them that her son told her that someone at Valle Landing owned him money and that he burnt the building down. She also stated that he told her that he did not know that anyone lived in the building.
Deputies spoke with an individual who claimed to know Williford. The individual said that he owed the suspect $900 from a “drug interaction,”
On Tuesday August 30, Williford's mother spoke to investigators again. She told them that she feared for her life and her son’s life, stating “she believed that he would harm her or himself going out in a blaze of glory,”
Also on Tuesday August 30, law enforcement contacted Verizon Wireless for an emergency location of Williford’s cell phone, it pinged at the Harrah's Cherokee Casino. Williford's black SUV was located in the casino’s parking garage (777 Casino Drive) and Williford was found inside playing poker. The same day a Watauga County Sheriff Office Detective obtained a warrant for first-degree arson, which was sent to the Cherokee Police Department. A search warrant was also executed on Williford’s hotel room in the casino.
Williford was arrested on Wednesday August 31 for first degree arson and given a $500,000 bond. A court date is pending.