Accused arsonist’s release denied

| August 13, 2009

Travis Lee Thrush will be sitting in jail while he waits to be tried in federal court on accusations he torched several buildings in Keokuk after a judge denied his application to review conditions of release.

The decision may have opened Thrush for more charges when Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas J. Shields expressed the court’s "great concern" about information gathered during Thrush’s interrogation by agents of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The 21-year-old apparently confessed to at least seven fires in the Keokuk area.

Thrush, who had lived in Keokuk, is charged only with three counts of arson in connection with blazes at the First Baptist Church educational building on Blondeau Street last May; Meyer’s Septic, 1000 Cedar St., in January; and 105 bales of hay as well as a carport just outside County Market, 2122 Main St., also in January.

In light of Thrush’s supposed confession, the court is uneasy about releasing him, fearing he may cause more harm.

And although noting that all criminal defendants are allotted the presumption of innocence, Shields said even if Thrush is released "in the custody of third parties, and with electronic monitoring, those conditions would not ensure that Thrush would not or could not be a threat of harm or danger to the Keokuk area."

"The court is not satisfied that there is any combination of conditions that it can impose that would ensure the safety of the community …," Shields wrote.

The other fires Thrush reportedly admitted to being involved with were not disclosed, but before federal prosecutors took over the case, Thrush was charged in South Lee County District Court with one count of first-degree arson and six counts of second-degree arson in connection with the fire outside County Market; the fire at First Baptist Church; the torching of the 151-year-old Bethany Baptist Church, 227 N. Sixth St., four months later; the fire at Meyer’s Septic, 1000 Cedar St., Jan. 6; two garage fires at 528 Morgan St. and 523 High St. on Jan. 28.; and another blaze in December at Bethany Baptist Church.

During a hearing in Davenport Monday, Thrush, through his court-appointed attorney, Clemens Erdahl, said his continued "detention has been detrimental to the emotional and mental well-being of the defendant as shown by the mental evaluation."

There have been some changes in the man’s life, Erdahl said. Thrush, according to his attorney, has a suitable residence waiting in Keokuk.

In June, a substance evaluation as well as mental health evaluation was performed on Thrush, the results of which are confidential. Erdahl said the results, which recommended an extended outpatient program, support their position for release.

But according to some released items in the report, the recommendation was made after evaluators found Thrush met the criteria for cannabis and alcohol abuse.

"Nothing in the record establishes that substance abuse is a proximate cause of the activities underlying the charges in the indictment," the judge noted.

Thrush was diagnosed with adjustment disorder with depressive symptoms, which resulted from his current incarceration, according to a mental health evaluation. However, Hillcrest Mental Health Center, which did the evaluation, did not recommend any treatment.

Federal prosecutors resisted the efforts from Thrush and called six witnesses to the stand, including an ATF agent and pastors from the First Baptist and Bethany Baptist churches in Keokuk. The pastors testified as to what happened to the churches during the fires and how it had affected their separate congregations.

The education building of the First Baptist Church went up in flames early that Sunday morning in May of last year, just a few hours before a church service. The interior of the building received the bulk of the smoke and fire damage. The second and third floors sustained moderate damages.

Then, a historic section of the 151-year-old Bethany Baptist Church, 227 N. Sixth St., burned four months after the First Baptist Church.

Bethany Baptist Church again was allegedly set ablaze by Thrush in December, authorities said, with damages concentrated in the rear portion of the building, where it held its Sunday school. There was additional damage to the sanctuary area.

Three Keokuk residents, Tom McKay, Amy Savage and Loretta Sanders, testified regarding the blazes at their properties.

Shields said the court is not satisfied that an extended outpatient substance abuse treatment program, along with third-party custody, would be an effective condition "to remove the risk of harm or danger to the community by Thrush."

Previous investigations on the fires did not reveal a motive, or any activity that would suspect Thrush allegedly planned the chain of events.

Nevertheless, the judge said the crimes fall within the category of violence.

"While some of the fires allegedly involving Thrush occurred at commercial or religious establishments were not in operation, the fire allegedly started by Thrush at the County Market in Keokuk did occur during business hours," Shields said in the ruling.

Thrush’s trial in Davenport is scheduled to begin Nov. 2. It is not known whether additional charges against the man will be filed.

He is being held in the Washington County jail, under the custody of the U.S. Marshal’s Office.

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Category: Church Security

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