BUCKHANNON — The arson case pending since 2019 against former Ellamore Volunteer Fire Department Chief Jamie Lynn Pugh was dismissed Monday morning in an unexpected turn of events.
Accused of first degree arson, Pugh, 44, was scheduled for jury trial on Wednesday after previously declining multiple plea agreement offers from Upshur County Prosecuting Attorney Bryan Hinkle on behalf of the State of West Virginia. Pugh’s case was actually set for jury selection Monday morning when he instead appeared in Circuit Court on the State’s motion to dismiss the felony arson case following an unexpected series of events last week while Judge Jacob Reger was on vacation.
A new criminal complaint was filed in Upshur County Magistrate Court by Hinkle on July 14, which essentially reduced Pugh’s arson charges to a lesser included offense of destruction of property, although his felony case for the same incident was still pending in Circuit Court with Judge Reger. The complaint alleged Pugh did intentionally cause fire to damage real property causing a loss to the victim less than $2,500.
On the following day, Pugh entered a guilty plea to the destruction of property charges and Magistrate Alan Suder suspended the 1-year jail sentence to give him unsupervised probation for 2 years. Pugh was also fined $500, which he must pay along with court costs by January 11, 2022. The order states Pugh “shall not be a member of any fire department from this day forward or this plea agreement shall become null and voided and the original charge of arson may be presented at the sole discretion of the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.” The State also agreed to dismiss the felony arson case in exchange for the plea agreement, thereby securing a conviction without trial.
Hinkle explained that dismissing the case in Circuit Court while still securing a conviction to destruction of property in Magistrate Court achieved the primary outcome—that Pugh can no longer be a firefighter or respond to emergencies. “I’m not doing this for Mr. Pugh’s benefit, your Honor, I’m doing this for the citizens of Upshur County,” Hinkle emphasized to Judge Reger as he explained if Pugh were acquitted in a trial, there would be nothing to stop him from resuming activities as a firefighter. Other interested parties, such as the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources Police, Division of Forestry, other local fire departments and law enforcement agencies were all on board with this plan and outcome, according to Hinkle.
Judge Reger expressed disapproval of the entire process and referenced a distasteful Facebook post Pugh made on July 16 that was brought to his attention before the hearing, alleging that officials in Upshur County are corrupt. “I don’t like the way this was handled period,” Reger stated, adding, “I don’t think this looks good.” He accordingly granted the motion to dismiss Pugh’s case in Circuit Court to prevent a situation of “double jeopardy.” Pugh’s attorney James Hawkins admonished the post and asked, “How can you be mad at stupid?” as he excused the action as being “posted out of ignorance.”
Despite court documents stating Pugh confessed to the arson during the course of the fire investigation, Hinkle said the accused now claims that his confession was coerced which could become an issue if the case went to trial. Pugh now says that he was threatened into admitting to the arson that destroyed property belonging to another on Little Sand Run in March 2019.
“They didn’t want to take a chance. They wanted to make sure he could never come back to the fire department again,” Hinkle asserted. “I put that in the paperwork. That was the main concern from everyone involved—they wanted him off the fire department. They don’t want someone on there who is going to go out and set fires, then use that as an excuse to go put them out.”
“The other issue is, we don’t really have a victim, so how can you ask a jury to convict someone when the person who owns the property says the guy [Pugh] did him a favor,” Hinkle explained to The Record Delta. The Prosecuting Attorney told Judge Reger the property owner lives out of state and has not been very cooperative in preparing for trial.
Hinkle said other contributing factors for seeking a dismissal were “sloppy handling of the investigation” prior to his appointment as prosecutor and a lack of evidence such as crime scene photos. The only existing photo of the burnt property was reportedly taken at a distance through the window of a fire truck.
I can’t stop him from being on the fire department,” Hinkle clarified, “but the deal was that he is not allowed to respond to any kind of emergency calls—neither car wrecks, nor fires or any kind of emergency calls and if he does, then that’s a violation of the agreement.”