Robert Lee Beckner

Robert Lee Beckner

WELCH — A McDowell County volunteer firefighter was arrested for murder and arson Thursday after authorities say he set a blaze that led to the death of a fellow fireman.

Robert Lee Beckner, 36, of Iaeger, is charged with first-degree murder and three counts of first-degree arson, according to a criminal complaint filed in McDowell County Magistrate Court.

According to the complaint, Beckner confessed to setting fire to his own home in Iaeger.

Beckner was a member of the Iaeger Volunteer Fire Department. Russell Roberson, 42, also a member of the Iaeger department, died as a result of injuries sustained while responding to a second fire in two days at Beckner’s home.

The Iaeger fire department first responded to the fire at 908 West Virginia Avenue on the morning of Saturday, June 20, according to court documents filed by Justin England, an investigator with the West Virginia State Fire Marshal’s Office.

Following the blaze, fire department members went into the structure and took pictures, England stated in his report. “Irregular burn patterns were observed on the floor throughout the structure.”

The next day, at 2:41 a.m., the department was again called to the West Virginia Avenue address for a “rekindle” of the fire, according to the court document. At this time, two dwellings on both sides of the structure were also on fire.

“During firefighting operations, firefighter Russell Roberson sustained injuries and medical treatment was initiated by EMS,” England’s complaint states. Roberson died while being transported to Welch Community Hospital.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice said earlier this week that Roberson reportedly died after suffering smoke inhalation while trying to save someone from going into a burning home.

Justice described Roberson as "an absolute hero."

Iaeger Mayor Joe Ford said Thursday that Roberson was trying to save a man whose mobile home, located beside 908 West Virginia Avenue, was on fire. 

“He was trying to rescue him,” Ford said. “He was trying to stop him from going back in (to the structure).”

England interviewed Beckner on Thursday, and he confessed to setting his Iaeger residence on fire, according the the complaint.

“Robert Beckner further confessed that he set the residence on fire by igniting a piece of notebook paper and spreading lighter fluid throughout the residence to accelerate the fire,” England stated in the criminal complaint.

Beckner was arraigned Thursday afternoon before McDowell County Magistrate Richard VanDyke. He is currently being held without bond at the Southwestern Regional Jail.

Mayor Ford described Beckner and Roberson as “good friends.”

“There was no animosity between them,” Ford said. “They worked together at the fire department for several years.”

— Contact Samantha Perry at sperry@bdtonline.com

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