KARNES COUNTY, Texas - For nine months, a serial arsonist was the bane of ranchers and farmers across five South Texas counties, lighting roadside grass and hay fires that burned up to several hundred acres at a time, authorities say.
Now they think they have their man. An oilfield worker originally from East Texas, now living in Poth, Jeffery Lepelley, 49, was arrested this week. He is currently facing 11 counts of felony arson, though Karnes County Sheriff Dwayne Villanueva said the investigation is still ongoing, and more charges are coming.
Villanueva said he has heard from residents who are feeling better now that Lepelley is in custody.
"They don't have to worry about what's next. What else is he going to start on fire if he was still out?" Villanueva said.
Though he is only charged in a handful at the moment, Lepelley is suspected in 58 fires between Karnes, Bee, Atascosa, Live Oak and Wilson County, according to the Karnes County Sheriff's Office.
"Everybody was watching. After it hit me, I was sure watching then," said Parker Schendel, a rancher who lost 170 bales to a fire in September at his property on County Road 326.
"The fire marshal said he used some kind of torch," Schendel said, standing near a patch of black ash where the bales, which he estimated to have been worth about $12,000, went up.
It could have been even worse, the rancher said. There had been about 600 bales of hay in the roadside lot, but Schendel's brother was able to move some out of the way with a tractor.
Though no homes were lost in Karnes County, but some of the blazes got to be fairly large.
"The largest one was around 500 acres," said Karnes City Fire Chief Charles Malik as he recalled the fires to which his firefighters responded. "Some of 'em were strictly just around the hay bales. Some of them were 20, 30 acres"
Malik said his volunteer fire department responded to 31 of these fires in all, including in other counties.
"He'd take a break for a while and then he'd start. After the rain we thought, 'Well, grass is too green. It'll be done.' But then he'd start going straight to the hay bales and lighting them," Malik said. "That was, like, 'Well I guess he's not going to stop.' So it's definitely going to be a relief."
Villanueva said the fires were started on the bar ditch or near fence lines.
"By the side of the road or where he could get to where there was grass or hay, that's where he was starting the fires," the sheriff said.
Villanueva said officials in the five counties started to realize they were seeing similar types of fires and pooled their information. The Texas State Fire Marshal's Office also participated in the investigation.
Karnes County Sheriff's Deputies and the Texas State Fire Marshal's Office picked Lepelley up from his job in Karnes County this week. Villanueva said the investigators with the state fire marshal's office found the evidence to arrest Lepelley.
Neither he nor the state agency went into detail though, both citing the ongoing investigation.
"I can say this was a combined agency investigation that spanned several months and hundreds of man hours," Sgt. Greg Huston, a fire investigator with the Texas State Fire Marshal's Office told KSAT in a text message.
According to a Thursday press release from the Karnes County Sheriff's Office, investigators used GPS technology, evidence from the scene and witness statements to place Lepelley at the location of the fires.
Though he said it was good Lepelley was caught, Schendel was not showing any visible relief as he stood by his fence line Friday.
"You never know. Somebody might copycat him, come right behind him," Schendel said.
Fire photo courtesy: Charles Malik
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