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Tahlequah fire investigators arrest three for setting more than 20 fires, vandalizing rural water systems

Tahlequah Fire Department investigators arrested three people this week for setting more than 20 fires and vandalizing a number of fire hydrants, which caused property damage and significant water loss to communities in at least three counties.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Cherokee Nation Marshal Service are assisting Tahlequah Fire Department with the ongoing investigation.

According to a press release, Fire Chief Casey Baker said Jacob Mills, 24, of Cherokee County, Sebastian Ritter, 21, of Adair County, and a 17-year-old boy confessed to setting five structure fires and numerous grass fires in Cherokee and Adair Counties.

The pair also admitted to draining water from fire hydrants in a number of communities throughout Cherokee, Adair and Sequoyah counties.

Baker said the three suspects were identified during an investigation into two structure fires in eastern Cherokee County April 21.

“Just before 3 a.m. April 21, Tahlequah firefighters were called to two simultaneous structure fires – one on North Oakdale Drive and a second on South 573 Road. While on the scene on South 573 Road, fire investigators spotted suspicious individuals and confronted them,” Baker said.

Fire Marshal Aaron Garrett and volunteer firefighter Matt Meredith, who is also an investigator for CNMS, interviewed the individuals. Garrett and Meredith are both task force officers with the ATF.

The suspects confessed to starting both structure fires on April 21, and several other previous structure and outside fires over a course of several weeks.

“They also told investigators they had opened several fire hydrants in a number of rural communities and allowed those hydrants to drain, sometimes emptying the water from the entire system. In some instances, this left citizens in those communities without water for days at a time while water district officials had to make costly repairs to their systems,” Baker said.

According to the press release, Mills and Ritter were booked into the Cherokee County Detention Center on potential charges of arson and burglary while the 17-year-old was released to his parents.

“This week’s arrests and the ongoing investigation are important examples of how agencies like Tahlequah Fire Department, the ATF, and the Cherokee Nation Marshal Service work together to make our communities safer,” Baker said.

The fire chief added that the arrests likely prevented more fires from being set and more water districts from suffering significant water loss and infrastructure damage.

“I appreciate the hard work of our firefighters, our fire investigators, and agencies like the ATF and the Cherokee Nation Marshal Service for assisting us,” he said.


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