By Ralph Echtinaw
Bethany Township farmer Bradley Lynn Baxter, 53, checked into the Gratiot County Jail on Monday, Nov. 2, to served a 45-day sentence for attempted third degree arson.
Baxter was sentenced Oct. 18 to one year probation, 45 days in jail, $68 in state cost, $130 in crime victim’s assessment, $300 in court costs and $3,400 in restitution following a Sept. 9 guilty plea to third degree attempted arson.
Baxter admitted to entering an unoccupied, dilapidated building on the St. Louis school district’s Camp Monroe property on the south side of Jackson Road east of State Road around midnight on Friday, Feb. 5, and setting it on fire with a blow torch. The fire was reported by a motorist on Jackson Road.
Some 39 firefighters from St. Louis, Breckenridge and Alma responded to the call on this snowy night at 12:47 a.m. and extinguished the blaze with two 1.75-inch hand-held hoses. The St. Louis pumper got stuck in the snow and had to be pulled out by Gratiot Towing. Firefighters cleared the scene at 3:39 a.m.
St. Louis Police Officer Brandon Crowther responded with the firefighters and noticed “a single set of fresh boot prints in the snow near the structure,” according to the report written by Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Joshua Dishaw.
Gratiot County Sheriff’s Office personnel arrived, and Crowther turned over the investigation to them. Sgt. Dishaw called in a state police tracking dog and set up a perimeter to the south, southeast and east of the structure.
Deputy Litwiller found fresh UTV tracks heading north on Royce Road to the east of the fire and followed them to Brad Baxter’s house at 1370 E. Jackson Road. He watched the house while State Police Trooper Hutchinson and Sgt. Dishaw followed the dog. The dog led them to a set of UTV tracks. The tracks led to a gate that had been recently opened and closed. From there the tracks led to Brad Baxter’s barn.
“I looked through the window of the barn door and observed a maroon Polaris 900 UTV backed into the barn,” Sgt. Dishaw wrote. “The UTV had fresh snow packed into the front axle parts, grass stuck under the front end and water droplets on the windshield.”
Approaching the residence, Sgt. Dishaw “looked in the window of the garage service door and observed a pair of work boots sitting neatly in front of the stairwell leading into the house. The boots were wet and still had snow stuck to the toes.”
Sgt. Dishaw knocked on the door. Brad Baxter answered and invited Sgt. Dishaw and Deputy Turner inside and spoke to them in the kitchen. The officers recorded the interview on their body cameras.
Baxter agreed that the UTV in the barn and the snowy boots inside the door belonged to him. Sgt. Dishaw said they followed tracks from the fire to Baxter’s property. Sgt. Dishaw told Baxter that the boot impressions at the scene matched the boots inside the house. “He said, ‘I guess I don’t know what to say. I was there today cutting wood,’” Sgt. Dishaw reported.
Baxter told Sgt. Dishaw that he began cutting wood near the building at 4 p.m. and left at dark. He said St. Louis Schools Superintendent Jennifer McKittrick wanted trees cleared on the property. Baxter told Sgt. Dishaw that he was inside the building but only because McKittrick wanted him to give her a bid for tearing it down. Upon further questioning, Baxter told Sgt. Dishaw that it was actually his brother Jeff Baxter, president of the school board, who told him that McKittrick wanted a bid to have the building torn down.
Brad Baxter said he had a trailer when he went to the building. Sgt. Dishaw asked if he could see the trailer. Baxter showed the trailer to Sgt. Dishaw in the barn, but it had no snow on it as the UTV did.
“I told Baxter the issue I had was the UTV was packed with snow, and the trailer was dry. Baxter froze up after I told him that. I then asked him to shoot me straight. Baxter stated, ‘Okay, they wanted me to take care of the house, and I lit it. She wanted it tore down, and you know what; I did it. I lit it.’”
Sgt. Dishaw asked Baxter if he told McKittrick he intended to burn the building, and he said yes. “Then he stated he didn’t tell her when he was going to do it. I asked him what made him do it tonight. He stated because there was snow on the ground, the wind was out of the south so it wouldn’t burn anything else. I asked him what lighter he used, and he took us to a side room and showed me a torch with a blue bottle.
“I asked Baxter if anyone told him to burn the building, and he stated he can’t put any blame on anyone else and the blame belongs to him.
“Baxter stated him and his brother talked about the demo job, but Baxter never told anyone he was going to burn it.”
Sgt. Dishaw spoke to McKittrick by phone at 8 a.m. Friday, Feb. 5. “She advised she had already spoken with her maintenance director (Scott Dennison) about the fire. She stated she was also already advised by the school board president that Bradley Baxter had started the fire.”
Sgt. Dishaw and Deputy Turner interviewed Jeff Baxter on March 3. “He stated Brad admitted everything to him about the incident,” Dishaw wrote.
Dishaw asked Jeff Baxter if he had discussed demolishing the building with his brother. “He stated it came up years ago but they never talked about burning it,” Dishaw wrote.