Crime & Courts

Man charged in arson of homes Gov. McMaster owns near USC identified by Columbia police

Fire that damaged 2 Columbia homes was intentionally set, leaders say

A fire that damaged two homes near the University of South Carolina Tuesday morning is being investigated as arson. Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins and Police Chief Skip Holbrook discuss.
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A fire that damaged two homes near the University of South Carolina Tuesday morning is being investigated as arson. Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins and Police Chief Skip Holbrook discuss.

A man who police believe is responsible for setting fires at two houses owned by Gov. Henry McMaster Tuesday morning attempted to set a third one, according to Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook.

The third fire, however, did not take, Holbrook said. It was unclear if the third house was owned by McMaster.

The man was identified as Frank John Wilberding, police tweeted. The 21-year-old has been charged with two counts of second-degree arson and possession of a controlled substance (Schedule IV), which was identified as Xanax, police said in a news release.

Police tweeted they detained Wilberding in connection with the fires near the University of South Carolina campus just before noon, with assistance from SLED. All three homes were on or near Greene Street between Five Points and the campus.

Holbrook and Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins spoke in front of the two houses that the fire made uninhabitable after causing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage. Authorities received video that they say indicates the man started the fire.

“Some of those videos contain some evidence about how we think the fires were set,” Holbrook.

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The man pictured is wanted in connection with an arson at two homes near the Five Points area of Columbia, both of which are owned by S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster. Columbia Police Department

Wilberding was arrested after he was spotted walking near the crime scene, police said in the news release. Police do not believe he had an accomplice, according to the news release.

Police have released little information about Wilberding. It’s believed he lived nearby, Holbrook said. Investigators didn’t know Tuesday afternoon if the suspect knew the people in the house, nor did they know they know the motivation for starting the fire.

However, investigators “don’t have anything to suggest” that McMaster’s ownership had anything to do with the arson, Holbrook said,

Early Tuesday afternoon, police officers and SLED agents were seen at a home near Henderson and Greene streets, not far from the houses set on fire. Agents appeared to be dusting for fingerprints on multiple cars along Greene Street. Holbrook said the detained man came in contact with other property going along Greene Street toward Five Points. A fire department spokesperson described nearby cars as having “soot” on them that investigators were looking into.

The fire started at a house on the corner of Greene and Barnwell streets and spread to the house next door. The two homes share a narrow alleyway, Jenkins said.

Jenkins said the heat from a fire in one structure can cause another structure nearby to catch on fire.

The fire caused “approximately $450,000” in damage to the homes, according to the news release.

Both homes were occupied by 12 people — seven in one home and five in the other, according to the fire department. All 12 people made it out of the homes safely.

People staying of one house told Jenkins they heard smoke alarms going off, the fire chief said. A fire department spokesperson said officials couldn’t say which house those residents were in.

Firefighters were called to the 1700 block of Greene Street just before 6:30 a.m. Tuesday and had the fire out by 7:45 a.m.

“It could have been an absolute tragedy,” Holbrook said.

Wilberding will be held at the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center.

Staff writer John Monk contributed to this story.
David Travis Bland won the South Carolina Press Association’s 2017 Judson Chapman Award for community journalism. As The State’s crime, police and public safety reporter, he strives to inform communities about crimes that affect them and give deeper insight into victims, the accused and law enforcement. He studied history with a focus on the American South at the University of South Carolina.