Two plead guilty to federal arson charges
By Ken Childers
Two local men have entered guilty pleas to federal arson charges after their cases were dismissed in Okfuskee County Court due to a lack of jurisdiction.
Mark Kevin Dodson, 51, and 22-year-old Seth Henry Thomas were arrested last fall following an intentionally set fire that heavily damaged a home on Third Street in Okemah. Both men were charged with felony counts of second-degree arson and endangering human life during arson, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that the state does not have jurisdiction over them because they are Native American and the crime occurred on tribal land.
Their cases were dismissed by the state but were quickly picked up by federal prosecutors, and on Friday the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Oklahoma announced that Dodson and Thomas, in separate cases, had pleaded guilty to Arson in Indian Country. Their crimes are punishable by not more than 25 years imprisonment, a fine up to $250,000.00, or both.
The indictments alleged that the defendants, both Indian, “did attempt and conspire, and willfully and maliciously did set fire to and burn a building and dwelling” in Indian Country.
On Sept. 15, 2019 at around 3 a.m., the Okemah Police Department and Okemah Fire Department were dispatched to a fire at the former home of the late Dr. Noel Miller and Dr. Bonnie Miller, located at 625 South Third Street. The fire damaged some of the interior of the home and was extinguished. Less than 24 hours later, police and fire crews were once again dispatched to the residence. The home’s interior had been damaged even further by a second fire.
Okemah Police Chief Ed Smith requested the assistance of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI), and an investigation by the State Fire Marshall’s Office determined both fires were the result of arson.
Investigators reviewed surveillance video footage taken by cameras at a nearby residence, which showed two men walking and carrying containers of liquid up to the east side of a home located at 610 South Third. It appeared they were either going to burglarize or set fire to the home until they noticed the surveillance cameras.
The suspects walked west out of the view of the camera toward the Miller residence and about four minutes later, a flash of light appeared, which was believed to be the fire starting at the Miller home. About twelve seconds later the two men, identified by authorities as Dodson and Thomas, began running east, away from the fire and through the backyard of 610 South Third, without the containers.
The following day, OSBI Agent Kurt Titsworth received a phone call from Thomas, and when Titsworth told Thomas he needed to visit with him about some things that had occurred over the weekend, Thomas hung up.
Titsworth obtained a search warrant for Thomas’ cell phone records, which showed Thomas had made and received calls and text messages around the time of the fire, hitting cellular towers within Okemah and Okfuskee County. His number had also pinged a cell tower 26 minutes prior to the Miller fire.
On Sept. 28, 2019 officers from multiple agencies executed a warrant resulting in Dodson’s arrest. Thomas was arrested a few days later after officers were alerted that he was at a house in Welty. As police were en route to the residence, Thomas was spotted walking down a nearby road and was apprehended.
Several agencies, including the OSBI, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, the Okfuskee County Sheriff’s Department, the Okemah Police Department, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Lighthorse Department, the District 24 Drug and Violence Task Force and the state Fire Marshall’s Office, were involved in the initial investigation.
The federal charges arose from an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Honorable Kimberly E. West, U.S. Magistrate Judge in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma, in Muskogee, accepted the plea and ordered the completion of a pre-sentence investigation report. Assistant United States Attorney Ben Gifford represented the United States.