Social media and exhaustive work by investigators has resulted in the arrest of four men said to be tied to an arson and more than 20 acts of vandalism or property damage that occurred over a five-month period.
While three suspects were denied bond on Wednesday, a Douglas County Magistrate Judge Joel Dodson granted a $50,000 bond Thursday for 27-year-old Eric James Pruitt. The total amount came from $25,000 for second-degree arson (party to the crime), $15,000 for second-degree criminal damage to property, $5,000 for criminal trespass and $5,000 for damaging a mailbox.
Co-defendants 27-year-old Matthew Stephen Johnson; 24-year-old Jesus Santiago-Ramos; 27-year-old Jose Alberto Santiago-Ramos, all of Douglasville, appeared in court Wednesday when Chief Magistrate Judge Susan Camp denied their bond. The four are accused of damaging property in the area of Chapel Hills Golf and Country Club on Golf Ridge Boulevard and Kids 'R' Kids on Chapel Crossing.
Pruitt, who lives in the Chapel Hills community, is accused of spray painting mailboxes sometime between Jan. 9 and Jan. 10. He was also reportedly involved in setting fire to a bus that belongs to the Kids "R" Us on May 11.
"Mr. Pruitt and two of the co-defendants were seen coming back into the portion or Chapel Hills that sits behind Kids 'R' Kids," Police Detective Brandon Nutter said. Eyewitness saw the fire. Police were then called and went to the house of Mr. Pruitt. At that time, (the suspects) were spoken to. While they admitted being at Kids 'R' Kids, they denied actually setting the fire."
The defendants are accused of causing about $36,200 in damage over the five-month period, according to Nutter. Several residences throughout the Chapel Hills subdivision were also vandalized. The men told police that it all began in January when they got together and drank.
They reportedly began walking around the neighborhood then started pulling mailboxes out of the ground and spray painting street signs. The vandalism then escalated when three of the four men damaged tennis courts and golf greens on March 23. Security cameras in the area caught images of the subjects, which the police posted on Facebook.
"Mr. Pruitt wasn't there that night, but the two other people who were with him the night of the fire were on video doing the damage at the Chapel Hills pool and the country club," said Nutter, who credited posting surveillance photos to Facebook with helping identify the suspects.
In late April, bus seats were reportedly slashed and a fire extinguisher was sprayed inside one of the buses at the daycare. Playground toys were also thrown into the woods. Shoe prints in the fire extinguisher spray matched the same type of shoes Jesus was wearing the night of the bus fire.
"(Pruitt) did admit in an interview to pulling some mailboxes up on Oliver Lane," Nutter said. "He stated that every time he was involved with it, two of the other co-defendants were with him."
Assistant District Attorney Anna Vaughan requested no bond, saying that Pruitt is a risk to commit further felonies and danger to the community. Pruitt's attorney, Frank Winn, told the judge his client was the only defendant to cooperated with police.
"All the people involved with Kids 'R' kids where the arson occurred… said that Eric left first," Winn said. "None of them admitted anything, but they did admit that Eric had turned around when they went into Kids 'R' Kids. They apparently had given the story about being at the parking lot, but Eric had gone back to his house so he had separated himself."
Kids "R" Kids owner Cynthia Murphy also asked the judge to deny Pruitt's bond.
"The fact that they targeted our school is beyond my wildest imagine, that individuals of this age would set out to do that," Murphy said. "It's not a prank for my teachers."
She told the judge the defendants "crossed the line in so many ways" and potentially endangered children. She acknowledged that Pruitt may have realized he made a mistake.
"But he doesn't need to be out until this can be sorted out and fully heard," Murphy said. "Our business will be greatly affected. I think parents are afraid… Each time (the defendants) had to escalate the amount of damage for the thrill of not getting caught, for the thrill of seeing what it would do… To put my kids at risk is more than I can bear."