Lexington, SC (Paul Kirby) – The young man that burned the town of South Congaree’s barn in August of last year pled guilty Monday and was sentenced. Dustin Kneece set fire to and burned the barn that volunteers had erected for the town’s first barrel race event in July, the month before the fire was set.
In July of 2016, the volunteers came together and built the barn on Oak Street just in time to hold a dance during the weekend of the barrel race. Most of the materials were donated and the project seemed to unite the town that was split by a government with a strained relationship.
After the barn was completed and the first dance was held, the community was abuzz about the potential of the barn. There was tremendous interest in expanding the functions of the facility to include weddings, concerts, and other community events.
Then, in early August, the county fire station that is located just across the street from the barn site, received a call in the early morning hours that the building was on fire. They arrived in seconds, but the barn was already destroyed by the blaze.
A few blocks away, an old, dilapidated home burned within minutes of the first reported fire. When South Congaree Police Chief Josh Shumpert arrived on the scene after being notified at home, he immediately thought Kneece might be the arsonist behind the fires. He had suspected that Kneece had started some smaller fires around the town during the previous months, but had lacked evidence to charge him.
After questioning Kneece at his home the morning of the fires, Shumpert took him for a polygraph at SLED’s headquarters in Columbia. Based on the results of that test, Kneece confessed to setting the barn on fire. He never admitted to burning the abandoned home, although he was suspected of that crime as well.
On the Wednesday following the fire, community members and many of the volunteers came together to pray and seek healing from the tragedy. Shumpert advised them of Kneece’s arrest at that time. He had charged him earlier that day with arson in the third degree, a crime that in SC carries the maximum penalty of 5 years in prison.
At that prayer session on the site where the barn’s burned remains still smoldered, community members decided that forgiveness was the best course of action. Older, wiser members of the group counseled that although anger was understandable, hate was destructive and counterproductive to the person that hated. They all agreed that Kneece would be told that although they didn’t understand why he did what he did, they held no hate for him in their hearts.
During his plea hearing Monday, Kneece pled guilty to burning the barn. South Congaree’s mayor Danny Jones, Police Chief Josh Shumpert, and representatives from the Lexington County Recreation and Aging Commission were there. The LCRAC staff was there because the barn had been built on their property with their permission. LCRAC insurance is also paying to re-build the barn.
Jones and Shumpert expressed the community’s attitude regarding Kneece and the forgiveness they had expressed. After weighing their statements and reviewing the length of time that Kneece had already spent in jail, the judge sentenced Kneece to 5 years of probation, the maximum allowable term by SC law. He was also ordered to undergo mental health counseling, pay the town of South Congaree $5,000 in restitution, and pay $2,500 to the LCRAC, the amount of their insurance deductible.
In a statement following the sentencing hearing, South Congaree’s mayor Danny Jones said he asked the judge to use her own best judgment in deciding Kneece’s fate and he was satisfied with the outcome. Jones said that in his prepared statement to the court he told the judge that the town’s citizens and government didn’t know how to best restore the young man. Jones said, “We only know that the Bible says to him who shows mercy, mercy will be shown and we will all need mercy on that day.” The mayor then asked that the court consider Kneece’s well-being in the future when deciding what consequences he would face. Jones said, “We would like to see him rehabilitate in the best possible way available.”
Kneece was sentenced under SC’s Youthful Offenders Act, a statute that takes into consideration an offender’s age and what might be youthful indiscretions when committing a crime. In some cases, offenders who are sentenced under this act can have crimes expunged from their records if they complete all the requirements of their sentencing in the allotted time.