Jury Return Guilty Verdicts in Church Arson and Burglary

Wright County Prosecutor, John Tyrrell, is pleased to announce that James Hopkins was found guilty by a Wright County jury for the Southside Baptist Church arson and burglary that occurred on June 10, 2023. 

The trial was held in Wright County with Judge Carter presiding over the trial for three days beginning May 29 through the 31st.  The jury heard testimony outlining how Defendant arrived in Wright County in the area of the church.  They also heard testimony about where he was and what he was wearing from neighbors.   They heard from church members about the layout and identified certain items found in the possession of the Defendant. Officers from the Mountain Grove Police Department testified about the investigation.  Finally, the jury heard from Fire Marshall Sterner and Chief Bushong about their investigation. 

The case was based on circumstantial evidence as no witness testified that they witnessed the Defendant setting the fire.  What he was wearing and how he came to Wright County was very important to the case.  He was hitchhiking from the Rogersville area looking for a men’s sober living home in Wright County. When the people he was getting a ride from could not find the home, the Defendant was let out around the area of the church.  He was contacted by law enforcement for a wellbeing check prior to the fire with no concerns being raised.  However, how he was dressed became extremely important.  He was seen by neighbors after the fire and was reported wearing a distinctive shirt.   It was not until the next day that the people who had given him a ride found him again walking out of town heading east on Old Business 60. Knowing the church had burned and the events of the prior day of dropping him off, they stopped to inquire if he needed a ride and asked about the church fire.  Based on his odd responses and suspicious behavior, they called the police department.  He was found by Mountain Grove officers at the Dunn exit.  During a search of his belongings, a distinct shirt from the church was located along with a bank bag with the label of Southside Baptist.  Based on witness statements and testimony from Officer Mings it became apparent Hopkins broke into the church by smashing a window on the eastside next to the ballpark.  He had found what the church members described as the money room, ransacked it and exited through a door on the east side that was always locked until the day of the fire. 

The jury deliberated for approximately an hour and returned verdicts of guilty on burglary and arson.  They also found him guilty of trespass in the first degree for staying in the Grove Square (formerly Richard Bros Grocery) the night of the fire.  The case then proceeded to the sentencing phase. The Jury heard from Pastor Miller who discussed the history and memories of the church.  Det. Linton discussed the seriousness and danger that firefighters, law enforcement, and the community face in events like large structure fires.  The Jury returned the maximum sentences available based on the verdicts: 6 months trespass first degree; 7 years burglary second degree; and 15 years arson first degree. Sentencing will be conducted by Judge Carter on September 5, 2024 in Wright County.

Prosecutor Tyrrell states, “I want to thank neighbors, Mountain Grove Fire Department, and Mountain Grove Police Department for their respective roles in this trial. This case was a complicated circumstantial case.  It took 3 days, several exhibits, and witnesses to paint the picture of what the Defendant did on June 10.  I want to give a special thank you to Det. Linton, Chief Bledsoe, and Chief Bushong.  Det. Linton conducted follow up investigation that helped put the case together.  Chief Bledsoe conducted witness interviews and tracked down witnesses to make them available for trial.  Chief Bushong discussed his years of experience and training in explaining the photos of the burned-out church to the Jury and what the photos meant in regards to arson. I also want to the thank the jurors for their time and attention to hearing this case.”