Man in custody after fire faces other charges

Friday, January 11, 2013
Flames shoot from the top of a house as a firefighter battles the blaze on Onyx Lane Wednesday night, January 9, 2012 in Cape Girardeau. Delta, Gordonville, Cape Girardeau, Millersville, Fruitland and East County Fire Departments responded to the house fire. (Laura Simon)

A 21-year-old man whose home was lost after a suspicious fire Wednesday night was confronted with criminal charges Thursday -- but they had nothing to do with his being the person who started the blaze.

Zachary J. Durham, who was taken into custody as fire crews battled the blaze the night before, remained in custody at the Cape Girardeau County Jail on Wednesday night on misdemeanor counts of sexual misconduct and possession of drug paraphernalia.

Durham was taken into protective custody Wednesday because of his level of intoxication, according to Lt. David James of the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff's Department.

Fire fighters from Delta, Gordonville, Cape Girardeau, Millersville, Fruitland and East County Fire Departments battle a structure fire Wednesday night, January 9, 2012 on Onyx Lane in Cape Girardeau. (Laura Simon)

Shortly after Durham arrived at the jail, however, he exposed himself to jail staff and shouted vulgarities, according to court documents, which led to the misdemeanor charges. Durham is being held on a $5,000 bond.

As state fire officials try to determine the fire's origin, James would not rule out the possibility of charges.

While the allegations on Thursday may have been unrelated to the fire, a probable-cause statement filed in the fire case shed some light on what happened leading up to the blaze, which required help from seven fire departments.

At about 8:30 p.m., sheriff's deputies Zachary Dillard and James Neel responded to the Durham home, situated on a farm just outside Cape Girardeau's` city limits, according to the statement prepared by Dillard. Durham had made a 911 call a half-hour earlier. He told dispatchers he needed police assistance, Dillard said in his statement. Durham apparently was upset about his sister accidentally hurting a dog.

When deputies entered the home just off Route K west of Walmart, they saw a large amount of smoke on the upper floor. When the officer asked Lana Durham where the smoke was coming from, she initially said a trash can had been set on fire.

She then told Dillard that she believed her son set it. The deputies didn't suspect otherwise, Dillard said, especially because Lana Durham was removing a burned trash can from the residence. When the officers inquired about Zachary Durham's whereabouts, his mother indicated he was upstairs.

After deputies got everyone safely out of the house, the they radioed for the fire department. Six departments assisted the Gordonville Fire Protection District that fought the fire until it was extinguished about midnight.

Deputies then saw flames shooting from the second floor of the residence, which is where Zachary Durham's bedroom was located. Durham told police he had no idea how the fire started. He admitted disposing of a cigarette in a trash can. One of Durham's sisters and his mother told police they thought he intentionally set the fire, the statement said. They also told the deputies that he had drunk about a fifth of whiskey.

After noticing how impaired Durham was, deputies took him into custody. While being searched, a brass pipe and a lighter were found within one of his socks, Dillard said.

The documents also refer to Durham's mother, who believes her son should not be held criminally responsible if charges are filed in the fire. Zachary Durham suffered a traumatic brain injury, she said, a claim substantiated by a personal-injury lawsuit on file with the courts.

According to the lawsuit, Durham was locked in a choke hold when he was 15 years old during an Aug. 22, 2006, altercation with another juvenile. The boy placed Durham in a headlock and then let him drop to the concrete, at which time he sustained a head injury, the documents detail.

Durham suffered injuries to his cranium, brain, nervous system and right side, the documents said. He had to undergo emergency surgery. Since that injury, Lana Durham said her son's condition has worsened.

According to his mother, Durham acts on impulse. He has been arrested for domestic assault at least four times, including incidents that landed him on probation only to see it revoked after repeat offenses. He has had stints in county jail of 30, 60 and 90 days.

Durham would be charged after biting his mother, pulling her hair or lashing out in some other way, Lana Durham said.

"He was so violent and there was nothing I could do with him," she said.

Lana Durham said she did everything she could think of to help him, from trying to get him into mental facilities to hoping that judges would have him evaluated. She believes they have failed her and her troubled son.

As for the behavior police attribute to her son after he was taken into custody, Lana Durham said it baffled her.

"It's just odd," she said. "He's never ever behaved that way before."

smoyers@semissourian.com

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