On Sept. 22, 2020, 911 dispatch received a call reporting a fire on CR 1213 at Barnett Bridge. The bridge is located in the Pratts Community and is one of the oldest bridges in Lee County. It is made of solid wood and has been used as a means of transportation up until this fire.
“Even prior to the incident, the wood (bridge) was completely dried, then it had creosote in it, or some form of oil to preserve it, so it was highly flameable,” Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson said. “My own personal belief, in looking at what we had, was due to the content of the fire, it produced a tremendous amount of smoke, with oil being inside those crossties and that made it easily visible from a distance.”
The Pratts/Friendship and Baldwyn Fire Departments arrived at the scene quickly and were able to extinguish the flames before the structure was completely destroyed.
“I would personally like to thank the Pratts-Friendship and Baldwyn Fire Departments for their response on that day. They were able to save and preserve most of the bridge, and also for staying on the scene to keep evidence safe,” Johnson said.
Once extinguished, the Lee County Sheriff’s Department, with the assistance of the Mississippi State Fire Marshal’s Office, was contacted to investigate.
“Our investigation from the fire revealed that someone had either intentionally or maliciously set fire to the bridge,” Johnson said. “The investigators worked tirelessly, taking statements throughout nights and most of the day on Saturday to determine exactly what we believe happened.”
Prior to the Lee County Sheriff’s Department and State Fire Marshals arrival, information about the fire was released, on social media, which somewhat compromised the investigation.
Because of this information being released to the public, investigators spent valuable time separating fact from fiction. While at the scene, evidence was collected by the Lee County Sheriff’s Department and State Fire Marshal’s Office and sent to the Mississippi Crime Lab for analysis.
Several people gave statements to investigators and two people were transported to the Lee County Sheriff’s Department for questioning. The Investigators received a tip that lead to a person of interest, Katelyn Hollis, of Baldwyn. They were able to piece a timeline together that revealed Hollis, 26, was at the bridge in the early morning hours of Sept 22.
While at the bridge she committed a malicious act that resulted in the bridge catching fire. At this time, law enforcement does not believe her intent was solely to burn the bridge but her malicious actions did cause the fire.
“On that day (Sept. 22) this particular individual, and two others, were on this bridge. While there, this female suspect was maliciously committing an act on the bridge. We do not believe, at this time, that it was anything done to destroy the bridge, but her malicious act, using fire, did cause the damage,” Johnson said.
The evidence about the case was presented to the District Attorney John Weddle and Assistant District Attorney Josh Wise and a recommendation was made regarding charges.
“Because of the elements to these different statutes, arson or malicious mischief ... one thing we always look at in the D.A.’s office, when we are consulted by law enforcement, is what are the facts, which we can’t discuss the details here today, and look at these facts and decide which statute to apply to the case,” said Lee County District Attorney Weddle. “It’s going to be malicious mischief. I would point out though if you did look at the arson statute, it would be close to applying. The penalty under malicious mischief, because of what we anticipate the damage to be, is going to be such that the penalty is about twice that, of what arson would have been.”
Felony malicious mischief carries up to 20 years in prison.
On Saturday, Sept. 25, the Lee County Sheriff’s Department and the Mississippi State Fire Marshal’s Office filed charges against Hollis in Justice Court. Bond was set at $25,000 by Lee County Justice Court Judge Chuck Hopkins. Hollis has since bonded out.
The bridge is currently closed to traffic.