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Court Docs Reveal Details, Possible Motive in Aug. 12 Fire at Valle Landing in Valle Crucis

The charred aftermath of the Valle Landing fire. Photos by Ken Ketchie

By Jesse Wood

During the ongoing investigation of the fatal Valle Landing, the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office executed search warrants for several cell phones, a ’97 Isuzu Rodeo and a hotel room at Harrah Cherokee Casino, according to the documents filed at the Watauga County Courthouse.

The emergency call for the structure fire came in at 5:38 a.m. on Aug. 12. Multiple business operated out of and multiple families lived in the mixed-use shopping center. All of the search warrants were executed during the last week of August and filed at Watauga County Courthouse on Thursday.

After executing the search warrants and conducting interviews, Benjamin Williford, 30, of Boone was arrested on Aug. 31 for first-degree arson and given a $500,000 bond and a pending court date. Law enforcement officials found Williford in Cherokee after tracking his cell phone.

Search warrant papers filed at the courthouse feature a timeline of the investigation leading up to the arrest.

newsOn the day of the fire, officers with the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office interviewed a witness that observed a black Isuzu Rodeo leaving the scene at a high rate of speed on the morning of the fire. (This is the vehicle that Williford drove, though it wasn’t registered in his name, according to facts listed in the probable cause search warrant. This vehicle was later found in the parking garage at Harrah Cherokee Casino, where Williford was arrested while playing poker nearly three weeks after the fire.)

As investigators continued to gather information and conduct interviews, High Country Crime Stoppers received an online tip on Aug. 17 that was forwarded to the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office and Boone Police Department. According to docs at the courthouse, the tipster stated that the “suspect was currently at Cannon Hospital in Newland under an involuntary commitment.” It’s unclear if Williford was known to law enforcement as the suspect yet.

A day later, investigators received requested camera footage from various cameras at Valle Crucis School and were able to see a person in the video and determined that a vehicle left the scene at 5:32 a.m., which was six minutes before the 911 call.

As the investigation continued, the High Country Crime Stoppers tipster followed up with WCSO Detective Carolynn Gragg and provided information that connected Williford to the fatal Valle Landing fire.

This was on Aug. 23, and that same day, Detective Gragg contacted Cannon Hospital about Williford and found out that he had been released from involuntary commitment the day before. According to the search warrant papers, he was picked up by someone affiliated with an outpatient opioid treatment center.

As officials continued to search for Williford, investigators got a hold of his mother, Melinda, who “stated that she had texted her son and that she knew that he was safe and happy,” according to the court docs. The mom refused to give officers her son’s cell phone number.

However, she changed her mind the next day, giving officers her son’s cell number and also provided more details: “Melinda Williford also told officers that her son, Benjamin Draughon Williford told her that someone at Valle Landing owned him money and that he burnt the building down. She also stated that he told her that he did not know that anyone lived in the building.”

According to another interview conducted by the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office with someone else and documented in the search warrant papers, Williford was owed money from a “drug interaction.”

On Aug. 30, the mother spoke to officers again, telling them that she feared for her life and her son’s life. “She said that she believed that he would harm her or himself going out in a blaze of glory,” according to court docs filed by Watauga County Sheriff’s Office.

That day, officers contacted Verizon Wireless for an emergency location of Williford’s cell phone, which pinged at the Harrah Cherokee Casino. The black SUV was located in the casino’s parking garage and Williford was found inside the casino playing poker.

On Aug. 30, Detective Gragg obtained a warrant for first-degree arson and sent it to law enforcement officials with the Cherokee Police Department. A search warrant was also executed on Williford’s hotel room in the casino.

Though he has only been charged with first-degree arson, the initial release from the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office noted that additional criminal charges are expected. His court date is set for Sept. 20, according to NC Courts database.

Here is a video that Watauga law enforcement officials shared with WSOC-TV’s Dave Faherty, who posted it on Twitter: