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Tipster heard Rock Hill men brag they set Bleachery fires

The tip that led police to arrest two Rock Hill men in connection with a pair of fires set in the old Bleachery was overheard at a York County Library.

Tipsters saw Matthew Wallace and Christopher Anderson watching video footage of the blazes from news sites online and bragging about setting the July fires, said Rock Hill Police Capt. Mark Bollinger.

Wallace, now 18, pleaded no contest Tuesday in York County's General Sessions Court to third-degree arson charges in the July 3 and July 10 blazes. Judge Alex Macaulay sentenced Wallace to 10 years - five of them in prison and the other five on probation, with community service and other requirements.

Wallace and 20-year-old Anderson were charged in August in the fires at 500 W. White St. after a tip to the S.C. Arson Hotline. The men also were cited for trespassing in the former Rock Hill Printing & Finishing Co. site a day before the second fire.

There were so many trespassers on the property, Bollinger said, that police didn't think Wallace and Anderson were involved in the fire until they received that tip.

Wallace was originally charged with second-degree arson, which was reduced as part of a plea negotiation, said 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett. That charge closer fits the crime, he said, because the old building where cloth was once bleached and printed was vastly empty at the time of the incidents.

As part of the plea negotiations, Wallace was sentenced concurrently in both fires. That reduced his maximum sentence on the arson charges from 40 years to 10.

Assault and battery with intent to kill charges also were dismissed, Brackett said, because the intent would be hard to prove without actual battery - stabbing, shooting, hitting.

Anderson still faces similar charges in connection with the fires. He remains at the Moss Justice Center in York on more than $100,000 bond.

The two fires cost the city of Rock Hill $60,000 and took 12 million gallons of water to extinguish, said Rock Hill Fire Department Capt. Rusty Myers. Both incidents required more than 75 firefighters at the start, and officials were there for 12 days fighting the blaze and monitoring its after-effects.

"Sixty-thousand dollars worth of taxpayer money went to deal with 15 minutes of foolishness," Brackett said while explaining to the judge the magnitude of the fires and the hazards to the firefighters. "Fortunately, no one was injured or killed fighting the fires."

Smoke from the first blaze on July 3 could be seen from as far as Chester County and parts of Charlotte. Many neighbors on Ebenezer Avenue evacuated their homes for safety.

Assistant Solicitor Dan Hall read from Wallace's statement that he and Anderson went into an office inside the Bleachery that day and started to bust computer equipment. According to that statement, Wallace said Anderson set papers on fire and, once the building started to burn, they ran through a hole in the fence from the building.

On July 10, flames shot up about 50 feet from where firefighters were smothering the first blaze. The second fire was smaller in size, officials said, but not by much. Firefighters were on top of the old mill when the fire started, and Hall said Wallace told police he heard the firefighters on the roof before several fires were started again in the building.

Wallace stood still as his statements were read in court. His only words, other than yes and no responses to the judge, were concise.

"I would like to apologize for all the hurt and pain I caused everybody," Wallace said. "That's all I'd like to say."

Wallace had completed 10th grade at Northwestern High School and was working at an area grocery store last summer, his attorney, Elizabeth Owen, said. He maintained his innocence in the fires, Owen said, but was pleading to the crimes because of the evidence against him.

"Wallace is a nervous, scared, immature individual," Owen said. "He lacks the confidence and maturity to call him anything but a kid. ... Like most teens, he longs to belong."

Owen said Wallace's father was murdered in prison while serving a grand larceny sentence, and one of his stepfathers abused him. She said Wallace had hopes of joining the Navy, graduating college and starting a family. His stepfather, David Johnson, said Wallace is a good, hard worker with potential.

Through her tears, his mother, Joyce Johnson, said, "My son is a good person. I know that from the inside out."

Once operated by Springs Industries, the Bleachery closed in 1998 and has stood mostly vacant between downtown Rock Hill and Winthrop University since then. Talks continue on a plan to tear down much of the Bleachery complex and prepare the site for redevelopment. Rock Hill City Council members have held several closed-door discussions the past few months, citing contractual matters protected by S.C. law.

After years of disappointments and delays, Rock Hill leaders have become leery about predicting when an agreement will be reached. The city plans to commit money from a special tax district set up to spur development at the site.

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