Rockwell teen charged with setting fire at petting barn that killed dozens of animals

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Shavonne Potts
Salisbury Post
Authorities have charged an 18-year-old Rockwell man with the March 2006 burning of the Stanback Petting Barn at Dan Nicholas Park. The fire killed dozens of animals and sparked a public outcry.
The Rowan County Sheriff’s Office announced Monday morning the arrest of Jerry Lane Harwood, 18, of 109 W. Main St., Rockwell. He is charged with burning a public/government structure and 41 counts of animal cruelty.
Officials with the Sheriff’s Office said they anticipate more arrests as the investigation continues.
Sheriff’s Capt. John Sifford said a tip the department received through Crime Stoppers this month led to Harwood’s arrest.
Harwood joined the Marines shortly after the fire and is currently listed as AWOL by the military.
He is also a suspect in a series of thefts from automobiles last week in Rockwell, authorities said. Rockwell Police Chief Hugh Bost said at the time of the thefts that the suspect targeted unlocked cars.
Investigators from the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office and a State Bureau of Investigation agent arrested Harwood outside his Rockwell apartment Saturday.
Harwood was placed in the Rowan County Detention Center under a $250,000 bond.
Investigators searched Harwood’s apartment and discovered evidence linking Harwood to the recent thefts from cars and two business break-ins in the Rockwell area, the Sheriff’s Office said.
Investigators said they also found three marijuana plants in Harwood’s apartment, along with assorted drug paraphernalia and burglary tools.
Neighbor Jennifer Cornwell was at her apartment the day authorities arrested Harwood.
She said Monday that officers instructed her children to go inside before they took the teen into custody.
Cornwell said she decided to leave because she didn’t want her children witnessing the arrest.
She said she believed Harwood and his roommate had lived at the apartment a few doors down from hers for about a month. An employee at Chamber Realty, which owns the Rockwell property, said Harwood and a male roommate have lived at the complex for one month.
“They didn’t really bother anybody,” Cornwell said.
Harwood graduated from boot camp at Parris Island in September and attended Marine Corps combat training at Camp Geiger in Jacksonville, according to military news submitted to the Post in 2007.
He is a graduate of East Rowan High School, where he participated in the school’s JROTC program.
As of 2007, his father, Jerry Harwood Sr., lived in Tennessee and his mother, Jodi Harwood, lived in Kansas.
Harwood’s grandparents, Mickey and Janet Cottingham, of Salisbury, declined to comment Monday.
The barn fire prompted the county to increase security measures throughout the park system, including the new Stanback Petting Barn.
Don Bringle, county parks director, said the new barn has fire protection and surveillance cameras.
Other measures have been taken to increase security at the county’s other parks.
Shortly after the barn burned, law enforcement officials told parks officials that someone intentionally set the fire.
“We’re glad to have some closure,” Bringle said.
He added that the county’s insurance carrier will likely seek to recover the $170,000 payout if Harwood is convicted of the fire.
Knowing someone has been arrested for the fire gives the park staff some peace.
“It’s a comfort to know that the person who would do this is not going to be loose,” said Bob Pendergrass, supervisor of the Rowan Nature and Learning Center at Dan Nicholas Park.
Many of the staffers have left the park since the fire, but many more remember the loss.
“It was very upsetting for all of us, especially our young staff members,” Pendergrass said.
He’s glad for a sense of closure, but admits it stirs up haunting memories.
Pendergrass believes some on the staff most likely knew the teenager.
The arrest, he speculates, will bring healing to the community as well.
“The community has been so good about getting us back on our feet. I feel the community might get some closure,” Pendergrass said.
He wondered if the Rockwell teen was a suspect from the beginning of the investigation. Officials have not said if they identified Harwood as a suspect early in the investigation.
Pendergrass said he tries to see the good in people, but still longs to know why someone would intentionally hurt the animals.
“It’s not about punishment, but getting help for someone who needs help,” he added.
John Spidell, who works part time at the Gem Mine, lives about a mile from the park and helped save some of the animals the night of the fire.
Spidell said the arrest of the Rockwell teen is just one sad event followed by another, for him and the community.
Spidell is a former police officer, border patrol agent and ATF agent. Of the crime, he said, “No matter what the motivation that’s unjustified.”
“I hope that (expletive) stays in jail ’til his hair is as gray as mine,” Spidell said.
The community came from near and far to express their sadness about the animals that were killed. Many, including children, raised money for the rebuilding project. A week after the fire, people were offering to donate animals before a new barn was ever constructed. About a year later, a new barn was erected.
Harwood was convicted of reckless driving in Wilkes County on March 20. He was given a suspended sentence and a term of 12 months probation.
Anyone with more information about these crimes can contact Detective Sam Henline or Sgt. Chad Moose at the Sheriff’s Office at 704-216-8668.
They can also call Crime Stoppers at 1-866-639-JAIL (5245) if they wish to remain anonymous.
Contact Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253 or Reporter Jessie Burchette contributed to this story.