CLOVER — Regina Roseboro doesn’t want to die burning.
She fears that’s bound to happen now that the man who claimed to be a member of the Bethel Volunteer Fire Department and is accused of setting her boyfriend’s car on fire has been released on bond and is back home with his mother just “two mailboxes down.”
Craig Allen “CJ” Strickland Jr., who is charged with third-degree arson, intentionally set the fire, deputies say, in an effort to get back into the fire department’s good graces.
But Strickland was never a full member of the department, but instead was on probationary status for about 16 days before he was asked to leave for unprofessional conduct, said Bethel Fire Chief Michael Laws.
At about 5 a.m. Friday, Roseboro, 29, was asleep in the Frank Watts Road home she shares with her boyfriend when she heard a loud “boom,” she said. She ran outside and found Strickland beside her boyfriend’s 2004 Chevrolet Malibu, consumed by flames. He told her: “’Ma’am, your car’s on fire,’” she said on Tuesday.
Roseboro ran inside the home and instructed her boyfriend’s aunt to call police and the fire department. She went back outside and beckoned a neighbor to help her douse the flames. Strickland tried to help, as well, she said.
Strickland identified himself as a Bethel volunteer firefighter and denied Roseboro’s claims that he purposely set the fire because of past issues between him and her boyfriend, Jason Lee Knight, who is being held at the York County Detention Center on a criminal domestic violence charge.
When firefighters arrived, Roseboro said she spoke with officials who told her that Strickland once worked for the fire department but had been let go.
Deputies spoke with Strickland, who said he was in his yard playing with his dogs when he noticed a fire through the patch of woods that separates his home from Roseboro’s, according to a York County Sheriff’s report. He heard a loud boom followed by “high flames” and realized that it was likely a gas tank explosion.
He grabbed his fire extinguisher and went to Roseboro’s yard, where he told authorities he found the car on fire. He shouted for help, but no one heard him. He tried to spray the extinguisher on the back of the car just as Roseboro came out the house and began blaming him for setting the fire.
He told Roseboro to get water, and later told authorities he did not understand why Roseboro blamed him, the report states. He wanted to help firefighters extinguish the flames, but was asked not to because he did not have his “gear.”
Roseboro suspected Strickland’s involvement because he and Knight, her boyfriend, had been feuding for several years.
Strickland later admitted to deputies that he poured gas on Knight’s tires and then lit the fire, said Trent Faris, Sheriff’s Office spokesman. He called 911 himself and, as fire crews arrived, began spraying the car with the fire extinguisher contents.
His goal was to get back into the fire department’s good graces, Faris said, adding that Strickland had been let go after he was charged with driving under the influence.
On Tuesday, Bethel Chief Laws said the DUI was one of several parameters for people on probation that Strickland was unable to maintain. Those parameters help gauge if potential firefighters can “follow simple directives” and “behave.”
“(Strickland) could not get through probationary parameters we set,” Laws said. “He could not keep his personal life straight to” perform professionally with the department.
“He was never a member,” Laws said.
Firefighting hopefuls are put on probation until they earn their interior firefighting certification and finish training at the state fire academy. They are allowed to respond to fire calls, place tarp on the ground, attend meetings, gather equipment and make sure firefighters are sufficiently hydrated, Laws said. They are not permitted to fight fires.
“If (Strickland) would have walked from that fire and went home, it could have killed us that night,” Roseboro said. “Who’s to say he won’t kill us next? Who’s to say he won’t come tonight and set the trailer on fire?”
She’s angry that an accused arsonist can be out on bond, free to set more fires, she said.
Magistrates are obligated to assign a defendant a bond unless they are charged with certain crimes, such as murder, said Judge Bill Womble, president of the state Summary Court Judges Association.
If a magistrate deems a defendant a flight risk or danger to the community, the judge can grant a surety bond, which makes the person bonding the suspect out of jail responsible for ensuring the defendant appears in court and abides by bond conditions. Strickland was released on a surety bond.
Often, victims view bonds as a “punitive issue” and want defendants “chained” behind bars until the case is disposed, Womble said.
“That’s understandable, but the bottom line is the person has not been convicted yet,” he said.
Roseboro described Strickland as a “terror” to the neighborhood. She has started going door-to-door to win support for a neighborhood watch. She’s asked deputies to increase patrols in the area in the mornings, but has yet to see a single patrol car, she said.
“I haven’t slept. ... I can’t sleep because I’m in fear of losing my life,” she said. “He’s sleeping fine in his bed while we’re worried about what he’s going to do next. It’s one thing to die in your sleep, but it’s one thing to die burning. I don’t want to die burning.”
Roseboro said her neighbors are also unnerved.
“People on this street are scared. What are we supposed to do? We have no protection from the police,” she said.
Deputies have plans to increase patrols in the area, and discussed increased enforcement on Tuesday, Faris said: “We’re out there.”
“He has anger problems,” Linda Strickland said about her son on Tuesday. “He did start the fire. He did dial 911.”
She told The Herald that Strickland admitted to setting the fire because he was angry with Knight. Recently, she said Knight called her son a loser and threatened to barbecue his dog. She theorizes that in an effort to prove he’s not a loser, Strickland set Knight’s car on fire.
When she picked Strickland up from jail, her son said, “‘Mom, I am so sorry,’ and ‘I did it, Mom. I was trying to put it out.’”
Instead of being angry, Strickland is calm and “subdued,” his mother said.
“It was a horrible thing for him to reach this point,” she said. “He is a changed boy.”
Strickland loved firefighting, his mother said. When he got his uniform, “he was so proud and happy.”
Court records show that Strickland was charged with reckless driving, speeding and driving under the influence in August. He pleaded guilty to the former two charges, but the latter charge was dismissed, his mother said.
After the DUI charge was dismissed, Strickland planned to return to firefighting. He wanted to wait until he got his driver’s license back.
State law forbids anyone with an arson charge, no matter how minor, from working as a firefighter. Third-degree arson is a felony carrying a maximum 15-year prison sentence.
Jonathan McFadden • 803-329-4082