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Last updated on Wednesday, March 7, 2012
(NASHVILLE) - The former manager of the Little Nashville Opry has been arrested on an arson charge, more than two years after the popular country music venue burned to the ground.
James D. Bowyer, 75, was arrested Tuesday in connection with the fire that destroyed the opry, on State Road 46 West outside of Nashville, after a show Sept. 19, 2009.
At the time of the fire, the opry owed more than $170,000 but had less than $9,000 in its bank account, according to the probable cause affidavit.
Investigators said Bowyer was close friends with opry owner Esther Hamilton, and the pair regularly played slot machines together.
At the time of the fire, Hamilton had more than $685,000 in debts and only $343 in her bank account, while Bowyer had lost $160,000 gambling and had $148, investigators said.
"From all appearances, Mr. Bowyer generally relied on Ms. Hamilton for financial support in that his finances were one and the same as Mr. Hamilton's," according to the probable cause affidavit.
Records show Bowyer had not been paid by the opry during his five years as general manager, but a handwritten note promised him $300,000 if the opry sold.
Six weeks before the fire, a deal to sell the opry for $2 million fell through after the financing company determined the opry wasn't worth the sale price.
Investigators said they believe Bowyer told staff members he was leaving early the night of the fire, but instead waited until the building was empty, spread an accelerant throughout the building and set it on fire.
The venue had a sprinkler system, but 50 percent of it had been capped or plugged over the years at Bowyer's direction, investigators said.
Days before the fire, Bowyer told a man who asked to reserve tickets for a show in October, "If we'll be here, they'll be here. The way things are going, we may not be here," according to the affidavit.
Bowyer said he didn't want to shut the doors, but told the person, "Sometimes you just have to do what you have to do," investigators said.
Brown County Prosecutor Jim Oliver said he wanted a thorough investigation of the fire before bringing any charges.
"I felt it was necessary to have all the evidence in hand and thoroughly analyzed before accusing anyone of this serious crime," he said. "There is no evidence that anyone else participated in or conspired to commit this arson."
The Indiana Attorney General's Office sued the opry's owner in 2010, claiming they engaged in deceptive business practices by withholding refunds. In 2011, the opry agreed to pay $26,500 in ticket refunds to 159 people.
Bowyer is expected to appear in court in Brown County on Wednesday afternoon.
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