Arson Suspect Arrested After Fire Damages Houses Owned by South Carolina Governor

By Zachary Stieber

Police in South Carolina said that a fire at two houses owned by the state’s governor was set on purpose and they later arrested a suspect.

Frank John Wilberding, 21, was arrested just before noon on May 14, hours after the fire was started at a home on Greene Street near the University of South Carolina.

Wilberding, a white male, was charged with two counts of arson and possession of a controlled substance, Xanax.

“Wilberding is accused of setting a fire on the porch at 1716 Greene St. shortly after 6:00 a.m. today. Flames spread to the home next door (1710 Greene St.) causing significant damage to both houses. The total estimated cost of damages is approximately $450,000,” the department stated in a press release.

Forty-eight firefighters worked to put out the blaze and fortunately no one was injured.

Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins said that people who live nearby found they had images of the suspect from surveillance cameras.

“Once we put out the fire, we had residents come up and say that they had video of a person, so at that point, we realized that we needed to turn this over the law enforcement,” he said.

After releasing his picture to the public, someone tipped off police to the suspect’s identity, according to Columbia Police Chief W.H. Holbrook.

“Anytime we have video, it makes our jobs so much easier. It’s an instant pointer for us to look in the right direction. This particular video not only gave us an insight as to how the fire potentially started, it also gave us a very clear shot of the person responsible for setting the fire. Then, we were able to push that information out to the public,” Holbrook said.

Wilberding may have attempted to set another fire, officials said. Investigators weren’t sure why he allegedly started the fire.

According to tax records obtained by The State, the homes are owned by Peggy McMaster, the wife of Gov. Henry McMaster. Tax records indicated that the McMasters also own three other houses on the block.

Pictures showed the governor on the block speaking with people who had been displaced by the fire.

Ariel Whitmire, a University of South Carolina student who lives in one of the houses, told WIS of her escape.

“I heard my dog barking and then I went out my room and I saw the neighbor’s house was completely engulfed from my kitchen so I grabbed what I could and I just took off. In that moment you don’t want to leave any of your stuff behind, but I didn’t really have much of a choice the firefighter was like, ‘come on, come on, out, out, out,’” Whitmire said.