WESTMINSTER — Until Friday morning, only this much was certain: A 49-year-old man was killed when his Main Street apartment building burned to the ground in an April arson fire.
What remained unclear until late last week was just who would go on trial for the crime.
In what has been billed as one of the most unusual cases handled by the county State's Attorney's Office and the State Fire Marshal's Office, two men have confessed to setting the four-alarm blaze that killed Carvin "Big Joe" Hanna.
At least one aspect of the case was cleared up by District Judge Jo Ann Ellinghaus-Jones Friday morning when she ruled there was enough evidence to prosecute Westminster resident John Woodward for the crime.
Woodward, 44, a resident of the apartment building at 88 W. Main St., was charged with first-degree murder, arson, and willful and malicious destruction last month.
Hewas the second city resident to be charged in the fire.
Charles Ray Ogline, 42, was indicted May 9 on the same charges.
Hanna died in the early morning blaze that caused an estimated $100,000 damage to the building and left 12 people homeless. An added $85,000 damage was done to the bar next door, Ernie's Place.
During the Friday preliminary hearing to determine if there was enough evidence to take the case to Circuit Court, Deputy State Fire Marshal Frank Rauschenbergsaid he, Deputy State's Attorney Edward M. Ulsch and Westminster Police Lt. Dean Brewer questioned several witnesses to the blaze before charging Woodward.
Rauschenberg said he and Brewer originally believed Ogline -- a drifter who hung around the apartments -- set the fire in retaliation for being told by the landlord to stay away from the property or because he had been restricted from Ernie's Place.
The fire marshal testified that Ogline was charged just hours after the fire when he admitted to Brewer that he had set fire to a couch on the building's porch.
A witness told police he saw Ogline "leaningover the couch when it was smoldering," Rauschenberg said.
Even though Ogline had been charged, police and fire officials continued their investigation into the cause of the blaze.
Rauschenberg testified that his attention shifted to Woodward as a suspect on May 15, when he learned that the man's roommate told city police that Woodward said he was responsible for the blaze.
Later that day, Woodward said in interviews at the Fire Marshal's Office that he set the fire out of "revenge and to get Ogline off the porch," Rauschenberg said.
"He did admit to lighting a fire to newspapers and to the couch at the time it was occupied by Ogline," Rauschenberg testified.
Westminster defense attorney J. Barry Hughes disputed Rauschenberg's assertion that Woodward is responsible for the blaze, saying it was based on the testimony of an unreliable witness.
He said the statements by Woodward's roommate, Gary Grimes, should not be given credence because Grimes has been convicted of arson in the past.
"And you can consider (Grimes) a credible witness?" Hughes asked Rauschenberg. The fire marshal said he considered Grimes credible "in this instance."
Hughes also criticized Ulsch and the State's Attorney's Office for not dropping charges against one of the men in the case.
"You can't say, 'here are two people who could have done this,' " said Hughes.
No trial for Woodward has been set.