River Road Pharmacy arson suspects have charges dismissed

Five accused in 2009 pharmacy fire case

ariquelmy@ledger-enquirer.comOctober 9, 2012 

Attorneys say charges of arson and insurance fraud against five people linked to the River Road Pharmacy fire have or will be dismissed.

The blaze, which destroyed a Columbus landmark, sent flames into a dark September sky in 2009 and required some firefighters to be pulled from the burning building. An investigation into the fire led to the March 2010 announcement by Columbus Fire & EMS that the incident was arson and that they'd pegged a number of suspects, three of which were named within a week.

Authorities initially accused Michael Lowery, 32; Bobby Jo Burkett, 29; and his mother, Lillian Burkett, 52, of setting fire in September 2009 to the pharmacy. Former River Road Pharmacy employee Misty Joiner, 32, was linked by authorities to the fire in August 2010.

A grand jury indicted Lillian Burkett and Kayla Price, 24, about a month after Joiner's arrest. Price faced only an insurance fraud charge for a separate car fire. Both women were accused of lying about the alleged theft of Lillian Burkett's vehicle in connection with an insurance claim.

All charges except those against Bobby Jo Burkett have since been dismissed, Muscogee County court records state, and Burkett's attorney, Mark Shelnutt, said the charges against his client will be dismissed as well.

"They never could get enough evidence," attorney Michael Garner said. "It's hard to prosecute someone for arson when you can't even show that it's arson."

The cases against the five defendants dragged on about two and a half years.

Defense attorneys Shelnutt and Garner initially demanded authorities release the names of witnesses implicating their clients.

Prosecutors refused, and the case dragged into 2011 with only Lillian Burkett and Price being indicted.

Garner filed a motion to dismiss Joiner's case in May 2011 before Judge Bobby Peters, who gave the state until September 2011 to indict.

When that deadline passed, Garner filed a motion in Chief Judge John Allen's court.

Allen also gave the state more time because an "expert's report" on the fire was soon to be available.

That report ruled that the cause of the fire was undetermined, Garner said.

The attorney then filed another motion, and this time Allen signed the order in March dismissing the charges against Joiner.

Cases against Lillian Burkett and Price were dismissed Sept. 4, court records state. Shelnutt said the charges against Bobby Jo Burkett will be tossed as well.

"It's pretty obvious that if they had wanted to prosecute him, they would have indicted him by now," he said.

Allen signed the order Sept. 27 dismissing Lowery's case.

Contacted Tuesday, Fire Marshal Ricky Shores declined to comment on the case.

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