One of the seven men arrested on suspicion of burning down the historic LeBeau Plantation home in Old Arabi last week started the blaze by lighting a T-shirt on fire and stuffing it into a pile of combustible materials on the second floor of the 1850s mansion, according to the state fire marshal.
Judge Perry Nicosia on Monday set a steep $450,000 bond for Dusten Davenport, 31, a door-to-door salesman from Fort Worth, Texas, for his alleged role in starting the fire. He was booked with arson, simple burglary and criminal damage over $50,000.
The judge set lower bonds for six other men.
Davenport and the others are suspected of breaking into the vacant plantation home early Friday morning to smoke marijuana and hunt for ghosts before later making a “conscious” decision to set the mansion on fire, according to St. Bernard Sheriff James Pohlmann.
At least some of the suspects were contract salesmen, going door-to-door to try to sell subscriptions to The Times-Picayune, said Rick Milne, president of Circulation Marketing Inc.
The Salt Lake City company provides subscription services for 25 newspapers across the country.
Davenport was listed on the company’s website as one of its top 10 sales representatives in 2011-12. He and another man were wearing shirts with the newspaper’s logo on them when they were arrested.
Milne could not immediately say if all the men arrested were working for CMI or how long they had been in the area, but he noted that their alleged actions happened when they were off the clock.
“They were all very good people. We’ve never had any trouble with them,” Milne said. “These young men did something stupid on their own time. This was not work-related at all.”
Ricky Mathews, publisher of The Times-Picayune, did not respond to a request for comment.
Francois Barthelemy LeBeau, a wealthy New Orleans businessman, had planned the opulent two-story Greek Revival home as a weekend getaway, but he died in 1854, the same year it was completed.
The property stayed in the LeBeau family until 1905, when it became a hotel and, later, a casino.
Joseph Meraux, among the largest landowners in St. Bernard Parish history, bought the property in 1967. It remained largely vacant since then and began to deteriorate.
It was at that point the forlorn mansion became the subject of paranormal lore.
The most popular tale involves a female ghost in a white dress who is said to float past the home’s windows.
There are also stories about lights coming on inside, even though electricity has not been connected in decades.
Kids would try to scare each other, claiming that some young people who entered the abandoned building never came out.
Other ghost tales center around mistreated slaves who might haunt the grounds.
St. Bernard Parish Fire Chief Thomas Stone said after the fire that the mansion was engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived a little after 2 a.m. Friday.
State Fire Marshal Butch Browning said no accelerants were used to help fuel the fire. It likely took only about 20 to 25 minutes for flames to devour the 10,000-square-foot home, thanks largely to dry wood that made up its frames and walls and wind that blew through any open doors or windows, Browning said.
“We’re talking about a wood-frame building. Modern-day construction has fire stops, fire walls,” he said. “A small fire (in an old building) can get out of control quickly.”
Browning said Davenport has admitted to starting the fire. Now, investigators are working to put together a case against the men.
“We believe the nature of the fire was strictly vandalism,” Browning said. “We’re putting together an excellent case to present to the district attorney.”
Nicosia set bonds of $350,000 each for Joshua Allen, 21, of Grand Prairie, Texas; Joshua Briscoe, 20, of Grand Prairie; Jerry Hamblen, 17, of Dallas; and Joseph Landin, 20, of Grand Prairie. Each was booked with arson, simple burglary and criminal damage over $50,000.
The final two suspects, Kevin Barbe, 20, of Arabi, and Bryon Meek, 29, of Gretna, had their bonds set at $75,000. Barbe was booked with accessory to arson and criminal trespassing, while Meek was booked with accessory to arson.
Browning said Barbe and Meek had left the property by the time the fire was started, which accounted for their lesser charges and smaller bonds.
The LeBeau home, located near the Mississippi River levee in Old Arabi and vacant since the 1980s, is now the property of the Arlene and Joseph Meraux Foundation, which owns extensive land in St. Bernard Parish as well as buildings in Orleans Parish.
“We are deeply saddened by the loss of one of our community’s most beloved treasures,” the foundation said Sunday in a prepared statement that defended its stewardship of the house. “The LeBeau Plantation was one of our most cherished assets.”
The foundation said it has reviewed “dozens” of proposals to restore the property since it acquired it, “but none presented a financially viable option that would serve the community.”
“Given the millions of dollars required to restore the plantation, prudence dictated that we preserve the plantation while we worked to identify the best path forward,” the statement continued.
The foundation said it hired an architect who specializes in historic buildings and spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars on structural improvements and routine maintenance.”
There was a chain-link fence around the home, and the doors and windows were boarded up, foundation president Rita Gue said Friday during a brief interview.
“It is doubtful that anything short of 24-hour patrols would have kept out these intruders intent on engaging in illegal activities,” the foundation’s statement said.