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Former Opry manager arrested on arson charge

After nearly three years, an arrest has been made in the Little Nashville Opry fire case.

The former manager, 75-year-old James D. “Jim” Bowyer, was booked into the Brown County Jail Tuesday, March 6 on a charge of Class B felony arson. His bond is $20,000.

Officers with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and Brown County Sheriff’s Office arrested him Tuesday.

During a press conference Tuesday afternoon at the Brown County Sheriff’s Department, Brown County Det. Scott Southerland said Bowyer was found working on his farm on Railroad Road in Morgan County.

“He didn’t seem surprised,” Southerland said.

A probable cause affidavit alleges that on the night of the fire, Sept. 19, 2009, Bowyer poured an ignitable liquid onto the stage of the popular country music venue just outside Nashville on State Road 46 West.

The report alleges that Bowyer left the Opry just before 10 p.m. to pick up owner Esther Hamilton for a night of gambling.

At 10:25 p.m., flames could be seen shooting through the roof.

“Fire science experts and investigators believe that Bowyer could have set the fire immediately after the technicians left, and still have made it to Mrs. Hamilton’s house at the time he and Mrs. Hamilton reported,” said Brown County Prosecutor Jim Oliver.

The wooden building burned intensely, with fire consuming most of the structure before firefighters got it under control just before midnight.

More than 60 firefighters from 13 departments in Brown and surrounding counties worked the scene until 11 a.m. the next day.

Less than two weeks later, authorities announced that the fire had been intentionally set.

According to the affidavit, massive debts appear to have been the motivation for torching the music hall where national acts such as Johnny Cash, Toby Keith, George Jones and Loretta Lynn had performed over the Opry’s 34-year span.

At the time of the fire, Hamilton and her company, Little Nashville Enterprises, owed more than $70,000 in past due property taxes, about $40,000 in vendor invoices, $13,000 to renew the insurance premiums and nearly $160,000 to performers for the remainder of the season.

Court records show the Opry had received ticket sales revenue, but had less than $9,000 in its bank account to cover the expenses.

During the press conference, Oliver mentioned the gambling habits of both Hamilton and Bowyer, whose finances, the prosecutor said, were “one and the same.”

The affidavit states that over the four years leading up to the fire, Hamilton spent more than $4 million at the casinos during some 800 visits, and Bowyer played nearly $1.7 million in slot machines during 650 visits. The record shows their losses totaled more than $300,000.

According to Oliver, investigators found no evidence linking Hamilton to the arson.

“We don’t have any information at this time that leads us to believe that Esther Hamilton participated in or conspired in the burning of the Opry,” Oliver said.

The prosecutor said that since the fire, investigators have issued more than 40 subpoenas, served several search warrants and followed many leads to reach the point of arrest.

“Investigators worked tirelessly to review mountains of evidence and mountains of information and analyze that in order to bring this case to prosecution,” Oliver said. “I’m pleased that we are finally in position that we can file this, and I look forward to moving forward with the prosecution.”

Bowyer is scheduled for an initial hearing in Brown Circuit Court at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday.

-- Kevin Lilly, Brown County Democrat

CLICK HERE for more information on this case.

CLICK HERE for a TIMELINE of Little Nashville Opry news.

Obituaries
See Full List »

Patricia Ann Powell Kearney; Ft. Worth, Texas
  1963 graduate of Brown County High School

William M. “Bill” Roberts Sr., 90, Bloomington
  Father of Kathy Shields (Mark Shields Sr.) of Nashville

Claude F. Shoun Jr., 75, Columbus
  Resident of Brown County Health & Living Community

  • October 24
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  • October 24
    YMCA pumpkin-carving contest
    before 6 p.m. YMCA, 105 Willow St.
  • October 24
    Deadline for Mini 4-H fall party
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  • October 24
    Bean Blossom farmers market Friday
    4 to 7 p.m. St. David's Episcopal Church, State roads 135 North and 45, Bean Blossom
  • October 24
    An Evening With the Artists planned at local gallery
    6 to 8:30 p.m. Brown County Art Gallery, 1 Artist Drive
  • October 24
    Murder mystery offered at T.C. Steele
    7:30 p.m. T.C. Steele State Historic Site, 4220 T.C. Steele Road, Belmont
  • October 24
    Nashville Feasibility Study Committee
    2 p.m. Town Hall, 200 Commercial St.
  • October 25
    Euchre
    6 p.m. Sycamore Valley Center, 746 Memorial Drive at the fairgrounds
  • October 25
    Dave Miller at Abe Martin Lodge
    5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Abe Martin Lodge, Brown County State Park
  • October 25
    Shriners to host trap, still board shoots
    9 a.m. to 4 p.m. 6088 State Road 46 East
  • October 25
    Old-fashioned Halloween Fest
    6:30 to 8 p.m. St. David's Episcopal Church, state roads 135 North and 45, Bean Blossom
  • October 25
    Free medical, dental and eye care offered
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  • October 25
    BCSP Halloween activities
    5 to 6 p.m., 8 to 10 p.m. Brown County State Park, 1810 State Road 46 East
  • October 25
    Live dinner show at dance barn
    6:30 p.m., 8 p.m. Mike's Dance Barn, 2277 State Road 46 West
  • October 26
    Storytellers to compete in Tall Tale Tell Off
    1 to 5 p.m. Brown County Public Library, 205 N. Locust Lane
  • October 28
    Euchre
    6 p.m. Sycamore Valley Center, 746 Memorial Drive (fairgrounds)
  • October 28
    BC Area Plan Commission
    6 p.m. County Office Building, 201 N. Locust Lane
  • October 28
    Open 12-step meetings in New Bellsville area
    7 to 8 p.m. Harmony Baptist Church, 3999 Mt. Liberty Road, New Bellesville
  • October 28
    BC Area Plan Commission
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  • October 29
    Jeff Foster at Hobnob restaurant
    6 to 8 p.m. Hobnob, 17 W. Main St.
  • October 29
    BC Board of Zoning Appeals
    6 p.m. County Office Building, 201 N. Locust Lane
  • October 30
    Gospel jam session
    6:30 p.m. Country Gospel Music Church, 5181 State Road 46 East, Gnaw Bone
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  • October 30
    Rotary Club
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  • October 31
    Bingo
    6 p.m. Fruitdale Fire Station, 5200 State Road 135 North, Bean Blossom
  • October 31
    Trick-or-Treat hours set for Nashville
    6 to 9 p.m. Nashville
  • October 31
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  • November 1
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    4 to 7 p.m. Christiansburg United Methodist Church, 7372 S. Christianburg Road
  • November 1
    Euchre
    6 p.m. Sycamore Valley Center, 746 Memorial Drive (fairgrounds)
  • November 1
    Annual craft, bake sale at Helmsburg church
    9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Brown County Community Church, 2370 Main St.
  • November 1
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  • November 4
    Euchre
    6 p.m. Sycamore Valley Center, 746 Memorial Drive at the fairgrounds
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    Government offices CLOSED
  • November 5
    Woodworkers club
    7 p.m. Charlie Roush's Shop, 6987 Christianberg Road
  • November 5
    Jeff Foster at Hobnob restaurant
    6 to 8 p.m. Hobnob, 17 W. Main St.
  • November 6
    Gospel jam session
    6:30 p.m. Country Gospel Music Church, 5181 State Road 46 East, Gnaw Bone
  • November 6
    WRAPS meetings
    7 to 9 p.m. Brown County Public Library, 205 N. Locust Lane
  • November 6
    Salt Creek Trail Committee
    10 a.m. BC Parks & Rec. Office, 1001 Deer Run Lane
  • November 6
    Brown County Schools Board of Trustees
    6:30 p.m. Helmsburg Elementary School, 5378 Helmsburg School Road
  • November 6
    Rotary Club
    7:15 a.m. Artists Colony Inn, 105 S. Van Buren St.
  • November 7
    Bingo
    6 p.m. Fruitdale Fire Station, 5200 State Road 135 North, Bean Blossom
  • November 8
    Second Saturday Village Art Walk
    5 to 8 p.m. Downtown Nashville
  • November 8
    Free community breakfast at Sprunica church
    8 to 10 a.m. Sprunica Baptist Church, 3902 Sprunica Road
  • November 8
    Euchre
    6 p.m. Sycamore Valley Center, 746 Memorial Drive (fairgrounds)
  • November 8
    Dave Miller at Abe Martin Lodge
    5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Abe Martin Lodge, Brown County State Park
  • November 11
    Euchre
    6 p.m. Sycamore Valley Center, 746 Memorial Drive (fairgrounds)
  • November 12
    Mandatory scholarship meeting at the high school
    6:30 p.m. Brown County High School, 235 School House Lane
  • November 12
    Jeff Foster at Hobnob restaurant
    6 to 8 p.m. Hobnob, 17 W. Main St.
  • November 13
    Go Club at the library Thursdays
    3:30 to 5 p.m. Brown County Public Library, 205 N. Locust Lane
  • November 14
    Bingo
    6 p.m. Fruitdale Fire Station, 5200 State Road 135 North, Bean Blossom
  • November 15
    Euchre
    6 p.m. Sycamore Valley Center, 746 Memorial Drive (fairgrounds)
  • November 15
    Dave Miller at Abe Martin Lodge
    5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Abe Martin Lodge, Brown County State Park
  • November 18
    Euchre
    6 p.m. Sycamore Valley Center, 746 Memorial Drive (fairgrounds)
  • November 19
    Jeff Foster at Hobnob restaurant
    6 to 8 p.m. Hobnob, 17 W. Main St.
  • November 20
    Go Club at the library Thursdays
    3:30 to 5 p.m. Brown County Public Library, 205 N. Locust Lane
  • November 23
    Nashville Reserve Officers host chili cook-off
    10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nashville P.D., 200 Hawthorne Drive
  • December 13
    Free community breakfast at Sprunica church
    8 to 10 a.m. Sprunica Baptist Church, 3902 Sprunica Road