Shawana Topekia Pierce, the 30-year-old woman accused of setting fire to the Judge Advocate General’s office on Fort Benning, has been indicted as well as linked to the arson by DNA, a federal prosecutor said at a Thursday hearing.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brendan Flanagan accused Pierce — once an employee of the JAG office — of buying gas containers from Wal-Mart some five hours before the Feb. 6 fire destroyed the building. A container with suspected dried blood was found in a nearby yard after the fire.That blood matches a DNA swab taken from Pierce, Flanagan said.
“This was a serious crime of violence,” he added. “An entire legal office ... was burned to the ground.”
The prosecutor told U.S. Magistrate G. Mallon Faircloth details of the investigation into the arson as he argued why Pierce shouldn’t be granted a bond, to which the judge ultimately agreed. Flanagan said a witness fingered Pierce as the person who bought two propane gas cylinders at 4:07 p.m. on Feb. 6. About an hour before that, she met with a criminal investigator about accusations that she had stolen government property from Fort Benning.
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Flanagan has said that Pierce was a suspect in a theft case and that files about her were in the office. On Thursday, he added that the alleged thefts happened while she worked in the JAG office.
“After 3:30 p.m., the fire occurred and her car was found in the parking lot,” Flanagan said.
The prosecutor conceded that when authorities searched the Ford Mustang, they found its battery had died.
Flanagan said Pierce is a flight risk and shouldn’t be allowed a bond. When authorities arrived to arrest her at her 1031 Pembrook Drive apartment on Feb. 11, she ran into the woods, where she was later found.
Pierce also had a rented car full of personal items, making it appear like she was about to flee, the prosecutor added.
Pierce told the judge that she was planning on visiting Sandersville, Ga. — where she has family — and Augusta, Ga., where a friend had returned from being deployed. Also, Pierce had recently returned from Reynolds, Ga.
“I got a speeding ticket on the way,” she said. “If I was trying to flee, I would never had come back to Columbus.”
Her attorney, Mike Reynolds, told Faircloth that all his client’s contacts are in Georgia. She has one small child living with her mother and another with the father in Kansas.
Pierce’s mother declined to comment after the hearing.
Thursday’s proceeding was initially Pierce’s arraignment and developed into a bond hearing. Before Faircloth denied her bond, he accepted her plea of not guilty, lifted a gag order he’d ordered Feb. 13 and ordered the case to be unsealed. He also heard the indictment against her read by Flanagan.
If convicted, Pierce would face five to 20 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine. Faircloth said she must reach trial within 70 days, unless the case is postponed for legal reasons.