Second firefighter charged in Fruitland arson case

Friday, December 7, 2012

Before Dennis Stegall was pulled from sleep that morning by the sound of a policeman's pounding, the 30-year-old truck driver from Fruitland never had heard the name Gordon Schafer.

Stegall learned a few things about Schafer over the next four months, but nothing that helped answer his biggest question -- how could Schafer, a volunteer firefighter, intentionally set fire to a house in which Stegall was soundly asleep?

"I could have been killed," Stegall said Thursday. "I had never seen this guy -- never laid my eyes on him. I haven't been able to wrap my head around it."

With repairs to his home almost finished, Stegall thought the ordeal was almost behind him when Schafer pleaded guilty to second-degree arson this week. Then came a telephone call from the Cape Girardeau County prosecuting attorney's office with news that meant is was far from over.

On Wednesday, a day after Schafer's plea, a second Jackson man -- and volunteer firefighter -- was charged in connection with the blaze that caused more than $20,000 in damage to Stegall's house while leaving him unscathed.

Christopher L. Bruce, 29, has been charged first-degree arson, a felony that has a possible punishment of up to 15 years in prison. That's the same charge Schafer originally was looking at, but his was reduced to second-degree arson in exchange for a guilty plea and a promise to testify against Bruce. Schafer was sentenced to five years' probation.

Assistant prosecuting attorney Jack Koester filed the charges against Bruce on Wednesday and an arrest warrant was issued. Bruce had not been taken into custody as of late Thursday, according to jail officials at the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff's Department and the Jackson Police Department.

Although Bruce was not charged until four months after Schafer, both men were brought in for questioning the day of the fire, according to a probable cause statement filed by Jason Dunn of the Missouri State Division of Fire Safety.

Like Schafer, Bruce said he was a volunteer firefighter with the Fruitland fire department. He admitted his role in the fire almost immediately, the report said. The men also had set fire to bales of hay that night, Bruce allegedly told Dunn while pointing to rural areas along county roads 525 and 532.

Just before the house fire, Bruce and Schafer were hanging out at the Fruitland station next door to Stegall's house, Bruce allegedly told Dunn. They were bored, so they began experimenting with flammable liquids, the report says.

But it was Schafer who set fire to the house, Bruce reportedly told Dunn, and it was Bruce who called in the fire with his department-issued radio. Bruce gave consent to Dunn to search his vehicle, where a bottle was found containing a flammable liquid that smelled like gas, the report said.

The cause of the fire was determined to be arson because of the evidence of a gas-like smell. No appliances or utilities sparked the fire and all other accidental causes were eliminated, Dunn said in his report.

When Bruce is brought in, he will be held on a $15,000 bond and likely will be arraigned on the charge the following Monday. Bruce has no lawyer in the case, according to online court filings. Attempts to reach Koester on Thursday for comments were unsuccessful.

As for the man inside the house at the time of the fire, Stegall doesn't know if he can bear to keep tabs on a case just to watch another defendant possibly get parole.

"I just don't see how the man got only probation," Stegall said of Schafer. "I was almost killed because they were bored one night. Wow. My outdoor light was on and my car was in the carport. They knew I was home. You'd think somebody would have to do some jail time."

smoyers@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent address:

7237 U.S. Highway 61, Fruitland, MO

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