UPDATE: Greene County Sheriff’s Office posted a “letter from the sheriff” on its Facebook page on Feb. 23, one day after this story published. The post broadly addresses illegal encampments, and stated Sheriff Jim Arnott personally led the operation to clear a homeless encampment on Feb. 10. The deputies gathered belongings into piles, but did not ignite them, the letter states. Read the post in full here.
Food, clothing and a cherished book were all belongings that were doused with gasoline and torched at a homeless camp in Springfield in early February.
Rumors are circulating that the fires were set by Greene County Sheriff’s deputies, but that cannot be confirmed.
The Greene County Sheriff has become a high-security vault of information, denying almost all requests from reporters at the Springfield Daily Citizen about matters of public importance.
In recent months, Sheriff Jim Arnott’s office has declined to answer any and all questions from reporters, and forced formal records requests for routine journalistic inquiries — including a February request for more information about fires set to homeless camps.
In separate interviews last week, three unsheltered people told the Daily Citizen that around 9 a.m. on Feb. 10, law enforcement officers they believed to be with the Greene County Sheriff’s Office approached their tents and told them they had about a minute to get their belongings and get out. The officers then, according to the three unsheltered people, soaked their tents with gasoline and set the tents on fire.
These people shared the same story with two homeless advocates, including Connecting Grounds Pastor Christie Love. Love shared their accounts along with a video of the smoldering tents on social media. As of Monday morning, Love’s post and the video had been viewed more than 4,600 times.
The Daily Citizen requested an interview with Arnott to talk about how his department has been dealing with unsheltered people who are camping on private and state-owned properties.
On Feb. 15, Paige Rippee, spokesperson for GCSO, replied to that request: “No thanks.”
On Feb. 16, the Daily Citizen sent the following request to Rippee:
Please submit these questions to Sheriff Arnott so he has an opportunity to respond. I’m not filing a Sunshine Request because I’m not asking for documents.
- I’ve talked to three homeless people who say deputies came to where they were camping last Friday morning, told them they had a few minutes to get their things and go. And then the deputies set their stuff on fire. Did this happen?
- Did the sheriff know what the deputies were planning to do that morning?
- Was the sheriff with them?
I plan to file the story Friday afternoon, so if the sheriff would like to correct any misunderstandings or add comments, I’d love to hear from him by noon tomorrow.
Rippee responded a few hours later:
“Sheriff stated ‘no thanks, you do not print accurate information anyway so there is no sense in responding to you.’”
No one from the Greene County Sheriff’s Office has ever requested any type of correction or clarification for anything published by the Springfield Daily Citizen.
Since the Sheriff is not responding to questions asking if reports about the fires are true, the Daily Citizen can’t be certain what happened on the morning of Feb. 10.
The property is in the wooded area behind the former Waffle House at the intersection of Kansas Expressway and I-44.
This is within city limits, where it is illegal to burn trash.
It’s also a location where Arnott and deputies cleared and arrested a handful of people for trespassing in January.
Did deputies torch tents?
One of the unsheltered people who spoke to the Daily Citizen said he was told by deputies on the morning of Feb. 10: “You got two seconds to get out anything you deem valuable.”
The man said that a few moments later, an officer poured gas on the tent and set it on fire.
The man became visibly upset when he told the story, adding that “everything in there was valuable.”
The man said he lost all his food, his fishing tackle, a more than 100-year-old copy of “Black Beauty” and his pocketknife collection. He was able to save his backpack.
“I wasn’t a problem for anybody,” he said. “I just want to be left alone.”
A woman who was camping in another area nearby shared a similar story:
“They had two gas cans,” she said. “They said we had two minutes to get out. … After we tried to get all our stuff, they burned it down.
“I felt horrible. I felt like it was disgracing us,” she continued. “We were able to save the heaters, but all the clothes that I’ve got burned down. I’m down right now to one pair of clothes and shoes.”
The woman’s fiance said they were told, “if we try to set up camp again, set a tent anywhere in Greene County, they would burn it down just as quick as we put it up.”
The Daily Citizen has confirmed the identities of the three unsheltered people, but is not publishing their names. When they spoke with a reporter last week, none of the three people had a place to go where they don’t have to worry about being arrested for trespassing.
Property was cleared of trespassers in January
According to the unsheltered people who spoke to the Daily Citizen, it’s the same property cleared by Arnott and deputies on Jan. 11, when the department cleared at least two other encampments and arrested 11 people.
The Daily Citizen requested information about the “small operation” — as Arnott described it to the Greene County Commission — but didn’t get a response until the reporter submitted a formal Sunshine request. When that Sunshine request was filled a few weeks later, the locations of the encampments were redacted, except for one that was located on property owned by the Greene County Highway Department.
Not long after the January operation to clear encampments, a statement from Arnott was posted on the GCSO Facebook page that read in part:
“The frustrated owners of these properties worked with the Sheriff’s Office, requesting the removal of the trespassers who had created these illegal encampments. …
“It is my responsibility to enforce the laws of this state and protect the rights of these land owners. Springfield is a great community that provides many resources and shelters to those in need. The Sheriff’s Office is committed to enforcing the laws and connecting those in need with these resources.”
Becky Volz is the president of the Woodland Heights Neighborhood Association. While the tents burned on Feb. 10 were located on private property in the Woodland Heights Neighborhood, Volz said encampments in her neighborhood are rare and not really the problem.
Rather, Volz wishes law enforcement would focus their efforts on people squatting in empty houses and take complaints from residents about squatters more seriously. Volz spoke about the issues with trash, parties and fights that happen when people illegally squat in an empty house.
Not too long ago, Volz said she encountered an unsheltered man who offered to help her clean up a sidewalk. As they worked together, Volz said she asked the man about his views on empty houses.
“His perspective on housing was curious to me,” Volz said. “He said, ‘That house is empty. So if nobody’s living in that house, why can’t I live in that house?’ It’s like (he had) either no comprehension or no understanding that somebody owns that house.”
In the past, the Springfield Police Department typically responded to trespassing complaints within city limits.
Sheriff’s involvement in city encampments
Had the camps been closed by the Springfield Police Department, the city’s protocol for moving homeless camps would likely have been followed.
According to the city’s protocol, which was established in 2014, officers give the campers 24 to 48 hours’ notice to vacate. Officers also notify One Door, the central point of entry for coordinated intake of shelterless individuals, assessment and referrals for housing and shelter services. One Door then sends staff and advocates to the camp to offer services and help with moving.
But since last summer, Arnott has personally led operations to clear encampments. Information about those operations were later shared on the Greene County Sheriff’s Department Facebook page. Some of those appear to have been within city limits.
As sheriff, Arnott has jurisdiction throughout Greene County, including within city limits.
Arnott has made it clear he’s not interested in giving people who are homeless 24 hours’ notice to vacate. He told a KY3 reporter last year: “We don’t jump through any hoops.”
The property behind the former Waffle House — where the tents were set on fire by somebody — is in councilwoman Monica Horton’s Zone 1.
Horton said she also heard about stories coming from unsheltered people who said deputies are responsible for burning the tents.
Horton called the sheriff’s recent handling of homeless encampments “a complete nightmare.”
In her view, the unsheltered community is an “easy target” for the sheriff, and he is using them to “grandstand and scapegoat and say that we are tough on crime.”
“I personally would like to see that same, ‘Let’s get tough on violators’ energy used on addressing the slew of chronic nuisance private properties that are tanking assessed property values of everyday homeowners in places such as my zone in northwest Springfield,” Horton said. “We should not be at war — burning personal belongings, life necessities. We are not at war with residents who are without shelter.”
Greene County Presiding Commissioner Bob Dixon declined to offer an opinion about Arnott’s handling of homeless encampments to the Daily Citizen.
“We (Greene County) have 10 independent office holders, and we are very careful not to meddle in their statutory duties or how they carry those out,” Dixon said. “Because the commission does not govern any of those 10 independent office holders, I would be very careful not to interfere or critique in the way they carry those out. They are governed by state statute, not the county commission.”
Dixon did, however, give his opinion about the sheriff’s operation to clear camps last month during a briefing between Arnott and the County Commission.
“It may not be popular with some people in the community, but it’s what I call tough love,” Dixon said in January. “It’s difficult to do, but it’s the right thing to do for those property owners.”
The below Facebook post was published February 23, one day after this story published: