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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 »

Millard Thompson, 90, Brown County
  Husband of Linda Lou (Scott) Thompson of Nineveh

Janice Mae (Rockwood) Burrier, 68, Brown County
  Member of St. Agnes Catholic Church in Nashville

Carolyn J. Axe, 77
  Former attendant with Brown County State Park in Nashville

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