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Bamberg man charged in downtown blaze; police say suspect claims dog bumped table, knocking over candle

BAMBERG -- A Bamberg man is accused of starting the downtown fire that burned four buildings.

Randy Lee Bloom, 61, was charged with second-degree arson on Tuesday after surveillance video showed him exiting the back door of 3110 Main Highway and quickly walking away, according to a SLED arrest warrant.

The video allegedly shows Bloom was at the building on March 5 about an hour before a passing motorist spotted the blaze and reported it, the warrant states.

The SLED warrant alleges Bloom gave audio and video statements admitting to lighting a candle which ignited the fire. It also claims Bloom made no effort to extinguish the blaze or notify first responders.

A Bamberg Police department incident report noted that Bloom was followed by an animal as he was leaving the scene.

The report says Bloom, “was the only person who is known to be followed by a dog named 'Homie' wherever he goes.”

Officers say Bloom told them, “he had placed the candle on a workbench in the room and the dog had bumped the table, knocking it over, starting a fire.”

Bloom said he, “attempted to put the fire out with his hands” but there were no visible injuries consistent with burns on his hands, the report notes.

Bloom told law enforcement he thought he had put the fire out before leaving the building.

The incident report states Bloom then went to a family member's house and did not make any attempts to notify safety officials or obtain help.

Steve Leninski, the owner of the four buildings which burned, said Bloom “was not a bad fellow. He did some work for me.”

Bloom would sometimes sleep in the buildings, but Leninski said he told Bloom he could no longer do that.

The buildings, which were vacant at the time of the fire, were full of antiques dating as far back as the 18th century.

Leninski purchased the buildings -- some for as much as $45,000 - about four to five years ago with visions of bringing them back to their former glory.

Leninski says nothing can be salvaged.

"Not a thing," he said. "About $150,000 worth of antiques went up in smoke."

According to a Bamberg Fire Department incident report, the fire call came out about 9:48 p.m. at Polo Antiques with crews arriving at the scene five minutes later.

The incident report states the structure was heavily involved with, “fire extending out of the front and rear of the building” when firefighters arrived.

One building collapsed and firefighters tore down another building to keep the flames from spreading.

PHOTOS: Downtown Bamberg Fire

No injuries were reported.

The total estimated loss of property and contents was about $223,300. The property was not insured.

Both the SLED Arson Investigation Unit and Bamberg Police investigated the fire.

If convicted of second-degree arson, Bloom could be sentenced to no less than 25 years.

Bloom was booked in the Bamberg County Detention Center without incident.

Bond was set on him by Judge Richard Threatt at $20,000 cash or surety.

The case will be prosecuted by the 2nd Judicial Circuit Solicitor’s Office.

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Willow Swamp Baptist Church speaks of early faith history in Orangeburg County

One gospel hymn refers to the "old, old story." But for one Orangeburg County church, their old, old story continues to grow to this day.

Willow Swamp Baptist Church in Norway is home to a unique piece of church history.

When Willow Swamp's spiritual odyssey began, the American colonies had declared their independence less than 30 years earlier.

President Thomas Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase was little more than two years old. The Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton duel was still the talk at meeting houses around the country.

It was Aug. 10, 1805, when 36 members of the Dean Swamp Baptist Church were given the church's blessing to start a new congregation about four miles southwest of the present-day town of Norway.

The original members of the church met in a private home along the church's namesake Willow Creek, according to the South Carolina Picture Project, a website created to document the state's history and culture.

A church -- a simple one-room wooden building -- was built.

White members and their slaves, who were also listed as members, worshiped in separate sections, according to the S.C. Picture Project.

The rotunda-style church, the oldest Baptist Church in Orangeburg County, speaks of the realities of the Civil War through the meticulous minutes of past church conferences.

The minutes help provide the 21st century visitor a window into the activities of the church almost as sure as if one had peeked into the windows of the wooden structure built on Willow Swamp 200 years ago.

They bear mute witness to the reality of war. The Oct. 19, 1862, minutes record that no conference was held "on account of nearly all the male population being in service.

In 1864, "there was no conference on account of nearly all members of the church being in service," the minutes continue.

A second church was built across the street from the present and was utilized until Union troops burned it during the Civil War, according to the S.C. Picture Project.

There are currently 44 Confederate soldiers buried in the church's cemetery.

Financial devastation during Reconstruction prevented the congregation from building a sturdy church, but they were able to create a shelter where the current church sits, according to the SCPP.

In 1869, the black members were given permission to leave and form their own church.

In 1919, the congregation drew plans for the church.

The church is located at 1956 Willow Swamp Road in Norway.

Photos: Look inside historic Willow Swamp Baptist Church

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Couple wins DUI lawsuit; jury awards $795,000 in 2016 crash

An Orangeburg County jury awarded a couple $795,000 from a drunk driver who collided with them in 2016.

The jury, which deliberated for 20 minutes, awarded the couple $95,000 in actual damages and $700,000 in punitive damages.

David Williams, the attorney for Jean and Johnnie Corbett of Bamberg County, said “the jury did a good job of recognizing my clients suffered emotional injury, including the loss of trust in the general motoring public.”

“My clients are wonderful people that spend a lot of their time doing mission work. They are proud to have their name associated with the punitive verdict that will hopefully help stop the drunk driving on South Carolina’s roadways,” Williams said.

Johnnie Corbett was driving his wife, Jean, west on S.C. Highway 210 when a southbound drunk driver, identified as Shakanji Capraiti Elmore, disregarded a stop sign and struck the Corbetts’ vehicle around 10:15 p.m. on Jan. 25, 2016, according to the civil complaint.

The Corbetts’ vehicle left the roadway and overturned in a ditch.

The complaint states that Johnnie Corbett saw his wife bleeding from her body as she was submerged in the ditch’s water.

Johnnie Corbett also saw his wife in “acute physical and emotional distress after the collision,” the complaint states.

On March 7, 2016, Elmore, 28, of 105 Edward Street, St. George, pleaded guilty to first-offense driving under the influence with a blood alcohol concentration of less than .10 and disregarding a stop sign.

Orangeburg Chief Magistrate Rob Clariday sentenced Elmore to 30 days in jail and a $55 fine.

Elmore’s attorney, L. Darby Plexico III, didn’t immediately respond to a voicemail message left for him on Tuesday afternoon.

Plexico stated in court filings that the Corbett’s claim for punitive damages should be dismissed because it violated the “double jeopardy” clause in the U.S. Constitution.

Williams stated that on average, one person dies every 26.5 hours due to DUI-related collisions in South Carolina.

In 2017, one person died an average of every 28 hours due to DUI-related collisions across the Palmetto State, according to the S.C. Department of Public Safety Traffic Collision Fact Book.

In Orangeburg County, 11 people died in 2017 as a result of DUI-related collisions.

As for DUI-related collisions resulting in injuries, not fatalities, there were 593 incidents in Orangeburg County alone from 2013 through 2017.

Williams said the jury sent a clear message, “We do care about drinking and driving in Orangeburg County.”

This story has been updated from its original version.

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Holly Hill man going to prison for international turtle smuggling

A Holly Hill man has been sentenced to federal prison for his role in a turtle smuggling operation.

Steven Verren Baker, 38, who is known locally as “Turtle Man,” was sentenced to two years and three months in federal prison after pleading guilty to participating in a conspiracy to smuggle wildlife, according to U.S. Attorney Sherri A. Lydon.

Senior U.S. District Judge Joseph F. Anderson Jr. of Columbia imposed the sentence and ordered Baker to forfeit $263,225 in proceeds.

On Feb. 27, Joseph Logan Brooks, 29, formerly of Holly Hill, was sentenced to five months incarceration and five months home confinement for his participation in the conspiracy.

Fellow conspirator Matthew Tyler Fischer, 26, of Holly Hill, was sentenced on March 1 to six months of home confinement and two years of probation.

William Fischer, 48, of Harleyville, was sentenced to two years of probation and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine for a misdemeanor wildlife trafficking violation.

All three participated in or facilitated Baker’s efforts.

Matthew Harrison Kail, 30, of Pomona Park, Florida, and William Thomas Gangemi, 26, of Freehold, New Jersey, have both pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing.

Evidence presented previously established that Baker was the ringleader of an international syndicate of wildlife smugglers exchanging turtles protected by international agreements back and forth between the United States and China, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The activity took place from January through June 2016. Baker obtained protected turtles from Hong Kong to distribute in the United States, and he shipped protected turtles from the United States to Asia.

The transactions were set up using the Facebook text messaging feature. Shipments were made internationally through the U.S. Postal Service. Several packages were intercepted entering the United States at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources investigated the case. Assistant U.S. Attorney Winston David Holliday Jr. of the Columbia office is prosecuting the case.