Crime & Courts

Chief: Man who broke into home now ‘person of interest’ in string of fires in Columbia

Minutes before a series of fires were lit in the Shandon neighborhood of Columbia late last month, a driver hit a parked car then broke into someone’s home. Now, police consider the suspected burglar a “person of interest” for the fires.

Columbia police charged 27-year-old Jonathan Wesley Hughes with first-degree burglary, petty larceny and hit and run on Sept. 26. That same night four fires broke out in the same area Hughes is alleged to have broken into the house, according to a department statement.

A surveillance camera caught Hughes driving erratically on the 200 block of Harden Street in a Nissan just after 3 a.m., a police report said. He hit a parked car near Harden and Duncan streets then drove away, the report said.

About 20 minutes later, Hughes broke into a home in the same area and stole electronics, according to police.

At 3:45 a.m., the first fire broke out in the bed of a truck parked in the front yard of a home on Cannon Street about a mile from where Hughes is alleged to have hit the parked car. The owner of the truck was able to put the fire out with a garden hose.

The next fire caused the most damage. Part of a home and two vehicles were burned on Heyward Street around 4 a.m. Another two fires happened on Heyward Street within 25 minutes when two trashcans and a boat cover were lit.

Investigators estimate the fires caused $82,000 in damages.

A day later, Columbia police released a photo of a vehicle they thought might be connected. The car was Hughes’ Nissan, police said. Thursday, Police Chief Skip Holbrook announced that Hughes was a person of interest in the fires and that investigators believe the blazes are connected.

Previously, investigator had not said whether they thought the fires were connected.

Hughes is jailed at Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center on the burglary, larceny and hit and run charges. He has not been charged with arson.

The Columbia Police Department, the city’s fire department and South Carolina Law Enforcement Division are investigating the fires.

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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.