Arson dropped for evidence lack

By Jill Taylor, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 3, 2003

STUART -- Prosecutors Wednesday dropped an arson charge against a former Tequesta security guard accused of setting fires he originally claimed were racial attacks.

Johnny Lee Gentry, 30, of 1217 S.W. Ave. B, Belle Glade, was arrested June 9 in connection with the 1996 case, but Assistant State Attorney Patrick Gillen said there isn't enough evidence to take the case to trial.

Witnesses have moved and retired and there was no solid evidence to prove Gentry set the fire, Gillen said. The arrest warrant was issued in 1996 primarily because Gentry's version of how the fire happened did not fit the physical evidence.

Gentry left the area before Martin sheriff's and state fire investigators could question him about the discrepancies.

And although the physical evidence is clear proof that the fire did not happen the way Gentry said it did, that is not proof that he set it, Gillen said.

"That's the rub," he said. "We can't prosecute people on maybes."

Gentry, who is black, was working at Ranch Colony, a rural subdivision in southwestern Martin County.

He told investigators a truck with four white men approached the gate and the men doused him and his office with gasoline. He said they tossed a match on the fuel and drove away.

But the fire investigation showed burn patterns that did not match his story and doctors reported it was extremely unusual that he showed no burns or singed hair when he claimed his shirt was on fire before he ripped it off.

Gentry was released from the Martin County jail Wednesday. He had been held on $25,000 bail since his arrest last month.

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