Tallahassee Democrat

Charges filed in church fire
Accused man was convicted in 1995 church fire

By James L. Rosica

The man convicted of starting a 1995 church fire now has been charged with setting the July 4 fire of another south-side church, according to court records.

Franklin J. Washington, 26, of Tallahassee, was charged Tuesday with arson and burglary in connection with the blaze of the Dantzler Street building that was home to two churches.

The congregations of New Bethlehem Church and Greater Antioch Church of Christ Written in Heaven used the building for church services on alternate Sundays, according to Fire Department spokeswoman Pat Teague.

Washington, then 18, was charged in the 1995 fire of the First Born Church of the Living God on East Orange Avenue, causing more than $200,000 in damage. He told investigators at the time he had been setting fires since he was 10 years old, according to reports.

Washington already was in the Leon County Jail last Thursday on a petty theft charge when investigators questioned him about the church fire, records show. They were acting on a tip from a fire-information hot line.

Washington admitted he had broken into the church before, explaining how he got in and what he took, according to court records. He also admitted being in the church the night of the fire, but he denied setting the blaze, pinning that on another man.

He said he never entered the kitchen, where the fire started, but his description of the crime scene "was consistent to that of someone who could only have been there prior to the fire," according to an investigative report by TFD Investigator John Gatlin.

Washington also knew the precise location in the kitchen of the can of "flammable liquid" used to start the fire, the report said.

Chris A. Burney, Greater Antioch's senior pastor, said his church is trying to move to another building on the south side: "I'm really pleased they caught him. We're very appreciative."

Washington also was charged with setting a tractor on fire on June 27 on East Orange Avenue, after telling investigators he climbed inside it to rest and dropped a lit cigarette, which rolled under the seat, according to the report.

The Florida Department of Corrections Web site shows that Washington was sentenced to prison in May 1996 for arsons reportedly committed in 1992, 1993 and 1995. He was released in April 1998.

He was back in prison in 2001 and freed in December 2002 after serving about a year and a half for a grand theft auto conviction out of Leon County, the Web site shows.

Washington has been arrested on several other charges, including resisting a law-enforcement officer, reckless driving, misdemeanor battery and various probation violations, court records show.