For the past three weeks, county staff and local businesses have been repairing damage from a Jan. 14 fire that engulfed one of the jail’s cells, melting building infrastructure and causing smoke damage. The fire forced inmate evacuation and relocation.
Less than a month after the fire, the county commission and Nodaway County Sheriff's Office are planning to reopen and return inmates to the jail.
The Missouri State Fire Marshal’s Office investigated the fire with the assistance of Detective Travis Cochenour of the Nodaway County Sheriff’s Office. According to the probable cause statement and report submitted to the circuit court, the fire was determined to be intentionally set.
Investigator Jacob Denum of the Missouri State Fire Marshal’s Office examined the scene and reviewed in-cell video footage of the south holding cell, where the fire originated.
In the footage, inmate Ethen Mark Bentley, 29, can be seen walking in and out of the shower stall just prior to the fire starting. After the fire was started, Bentley is seen throwing a mattress and sheet from the top bunk in the cell into the shower stall. The fire continues, growing to a larger point, when smoke begins to black out camera footage and the video ends.
Bentley was alone in the cell at the time of the fire, as a previous cellmate left prior to the fire starting.
Based on this evidence, Denum charged Bentley with one count of arson in the first degree.
“It is your affiant’s opinion that Ethen Mark Bentley started a fire in the cell he was solely occupying at the time,” the statement reads. “Mr. Bentley showed complete disregard for the other three inmates that were secured in close proximity to the fire.”
Bentley was being held in the Nodaway County Jail for an incident Jan. 6, when he was charged with two counts of first degree assault, one count of domestic assault, one count of first degree property damage and resisting a lawful stop.
Bentley has a court date for 9:30 a.m. March 1 on the count of arson.
The fire brought up discussions among county staff on how to make the jail safer for both inmates and staff. Since Strong has been in office, he has pushed for updates to the building which was built in the 1980’s.
“(The Nodaway County Commission) has had people come by and look at putting sprinklers in after the fact and bidding that,” Strong said. “The jail was poorly designed when it was built … so we’ve just had to deal with it over the years. We’ve had plumbing issues; we had lock issues, electrical issues, an aging video system that was obsolete.”
One thing Strong mentioned he was thankful for was the new video system his administration put in. It was able to display the fire and allow a jailer to notice before there was too much damage.
Cochenour was one of many honored by Sheriff Strong Feb. 4 for their work to minimize damage and safely evacuate the jail Jan. 14.
Jailers Madison Morgan, Ty Sturgeon and Deputy Jesse Bolin all assisted Strong in minimizing damage on the day of the fire. Strong bestowed a Life Saving Award to those involved that day to honor their quick thinking and heroism.
The Nodaway County Commission said its members initially set a reopen date for the jail of less than a month after the fire happened and that the cleaning process is on track for that possibility.
“Everybody handled everything in a very efficient manner,” South District Commissioner Scott Walk said.