The man accused of setting fire to the courthouse almost two years ago was scheduled to stand trial Wednesday for arson but the case against 55 year old Gary Wayne Ponder has been delayed.
During a brief hearing Wednesday morning in DeKalb County Criminal Court, Judge Gary McKenzie granted a defense motion for a continuance (postponement) of the trial after learning that Ponder’s medical condition could be affecting his mental state. The judge has reset the trial date for May 9 and ordered that Ponder undergo another evaluation in the meantime to determine if he is competent to stand trial. He was deemed to be competent after his first evaluation several weeks after the fire
As grounds for seeking the continuance, Assistant Public Defender Scott Grissom included with his motion a letter from Sherry Wright, a nurse practitioner at Vanderbilt University Medical Center who saw Ponder on March 21 and found him to be confused. According to Wright, Ponder is being treated for cirrhosis of the liver and that complications from this condition causes confusion.
In her letter to whom it may concern, Wright wrote on April 2 that “ I am caring for Mr. Gary Ponder who has a diagnosis of cirrhosis. One of the complications with cirrhosis is hepatic encephalopathy. This condition causes confusion because ammonia builds up in the brain when it does not metabolize in the liver due to cirrhosis (scarring in the liver). When I saw him (Ponder) in the office on March 21 he was confused. I have started a medication called Lactulose that helps to remove the ammonia from his brain to help with his condition”.
In granting the motion for a delay, Judge McKenzie said this is a serious case and he wanted to ensure that a just and fair trial be held and to lessen the risk of the case being sent back on appeal for another trial.
Assistant District Attorney General Stephanie Johnson said while the state looks forward to trying this case, she understands the reasons for the judge’s decision in light of the new information provided to the court.
While Ponder remains on bond pending the trial, Judge McKenzie instructed him to follow through on reporting for his scheduled evaluation within the next 30 days. If he doesn’t, Judge McKenzie warned Ponder that he would be ordered into custody for the evaluation.
Smithville Police charged Ponder on Wednesday, June 15, 2016 after he was observed on the courthouse surveillance video system intentionally lighting fire in a newspaper recycling bin on the first floor vestibule. The video showed that on Tuesday, June 14, 2016 Ponder grabbed newspapers from the recycling bin and started the fire by lighting them with a cigarette lighter. The fire damaged the wall behind the recycling bin and cracked a window in the vestibule near the first floor entrance of the courthouse.
Local attorney Jim Judkins was the first to spot the blaze. He tried to activate the fire alarm and accessed a fire extinguisher which he used to try to put out the blaze.
"I was going into the basement of the courthouse to file a notice with the court and noticed there was a fire about waist level in the recycling bins located in the front of the basement area. I tried to find if there was a fire extinguisher or a fire alarm. An individual had already pulled a fire alarm and it wasn’t working. I then went over to the election commission office and told them to call the fire department. I was looking for anything to put it out. I grabbed a coffee pot and some drinks off their desks (election commission office) and threw that on it (fire). That put it down a little. I then tried to activate another fire alarm but it too did not go off. Someone then brought me a fire extinguisher and I got it put out. It had burned part of the wall (behind the bin) and there was a ton of smoke to the point that I had to get down on my knees to finish putting the fire out," Judkins told WJLE.
Members of the Smithville Fire Department were notified and quickly responded.
Judkins later discovered that he had not completely extinguished the fire himself. " I talked with Smithville Fire Chief Charlie (Parker). I thought I had the fire put out but when they (city firefighters) took over he (Chief Parker) said it was smoldering and they had to empty another extinguisher," said Judkins.
County Mayor Tim Stribling said the total damages to the courthouse caused by the fire came to $120,706.52, which was the amount of the claim paid by the county’s insurance provider.
After the fire smoke had to be cleared from the courthouse, new ceiling tiles and dry wall work were required and a broken glass in the vestibule doorway had to be replaced.
The county also installed a new fire alarm system in the courthouse provided by FireTeam of Tracy City at a cost of $35,363.81. The system meets the latest International Fire Codes.