Suspect charged in apartment fire, crash of stolen car - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Fire set, car stolen & crashed; a cry for help or an arsonist bent on murder?

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EAST RIDGE, TN. (WRCB) -- Most everything plastic has melted in Emma Gohr's apartment at Spring Creek Gardens. 

Including, what she believes saved her early Tuesday morning.

"The smoke alarm woke me up," she says. "I went out the door in bare feet! It's a good thing that it wasn't that far, or I would have been trapped in my bedroom, probably died."

East Ridge Police won't dispute it, considering that arson investigators have determined that somebody set that fire, at her front door.

"It wasn't adding up as a normal fire," Public Information Officer Erik Hopkins tells Eyewitness News. "Especially the way that fires start generally."

The suspect, 21-year-old Thomas Benson Shirley, wouldn't fall into their laps. Instead, he would crash into a building at Standifer Gap Road and Shallowford Road, behind the wheel of a Lincoln reported stolen from the same apartment complex.

He was arrested at Erlanger Hospital, while being treated for his injuries.

"I don't know what kind of medication he was on, but he was not Thomas," insists Carol Bearden, who describes herself as Shirley's caregiver and virtual 'foster mother' for more than 12 years.

"He was all wild-eyed, running back and forth."

Bearden's apartment is across the hall from Gohr's. Her address is listed as Shirley's home on this most recent jail booking, and in court records for the 11 previous criminal charges he's faced since reaching adulthood. Those charges include two counts each of domestic assault and theft, reckless endangerment, vandalism and trespassing.

Bearden says she wouldn't let Shirley stay, fearing for her own safety, when he showed up at her apartment Monday. 

"He came in here, just walked into my apartment," neighbor Daniel Capes tells Channel 3. "I told him he had to go."

So far, medical privacy laws have prevented Channel 3 from verifying Bearden's claims that Shirley had been undergoing treatment at a mental health facility in Atlanta, and been refused treatment at similar facilities near East Ridge Monday.

"Three hours later (after being unable to get help), it all leads to this," Bearden says.
"By the grace of God, nobody got hurt."

Shirley has been charged with attempted murder, aggravated arson, reckless endangerment and auto theft. Bail is $500,000.

He's due in court February 5.

"There was an intentional act to set fire to the building which endangers that person's life," Hopkins says.

"It appears there was so short of rage involved." 

"I'm a nice lady," Gohr says. "I stay by myself, I don't interfere with anybody."

She plans to stay in the complex that's been her retirement home for the past eight years. She's hopeful management will move her to another apartment.

Capes wants to leave.

"I have children," he says. "I can't have them in this sort of environment."

Bearden is torn.

"I know he (Shirley) needs to be punished for what he done," she says. "But he needs to get help. Somebody needs to get him out of society."

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