Robert Lee Beckner

Robert Lee Beckner

WELCH — A text from his wife requesting a divorce was the catalyst that led a volunteer firefighter to set a blaze leading to the death of another fireman, according to court testimony Tuesday.

Robert Lee Beckner, 36, of Iaeger, was arrested June 25 and charged with first-degree murder and three counts of first-degree arson after a fellow firefighter, 42-year-old Russell Roberson, died from injuries he sustained while responding to the second fire in two days at Beckner’s home. Both Beckner and Roberson served with the Iaeger Volunteer Fire Department.

Beckner, who is currently being held at the Southwestern Regional Jail, appeared by video Tuesday before Magistrate Danny Mitchell for a preliminary hearing. 

Iaeger firefighters were dispatched the morning of June 20 to Beckner’s home at 908 West Virginia Avenue, according to a report filed by Assistant State Fire Marshal Justin England. After the fire, the department’s members entered the burned structure and took pictures showing “irregular burn patterns” on the floors. 

The fire department was dispatched the following Sunday at 2:41 a.m. to Beckner’s home for a “rekindle” of the fire. Two neighboring homes, 906 and 910, were also on fire, England testified Tuesday. Roberson saw a man trying to enter his burning home and “basically had to wrestle him off the porch,” and became enveloped in “a ball of smoke.”

Roberson became ill and died while being transported to Welch Community Hospital.

England said Tuesday that fire investigators routinely speak with homeowners after a blaze, so he contacted Beckner for an interview. At the first interview, Beckner said he had left home by 7 p.m. and drove to Greenbrier Mountain to drop off some truck tickets. During a second interview at the West Virginia State Police detachment in Welch, Beckner offered a confession.

Beckner said he woke from a nap, lit a piece of paper, got a bottle of lighter fluid and set the fire as he left the home, England testified.

England stated that he also interviewed Beckner’s wife, who said she had left their home after some domestic issues with her husband, and sent him a text saying that she wanted a divorce. She was staying at a friend’s home the night of the fire.

“He told us that everything with his wife was coming down on him, and he woke up and set the fire,” England said after the hearing.

Public Defender Marcia L. Hebb, who represented Beckner at Tuesday’s hearing, asked England if Roberson’s exact cause of death had been determined. The State Fire Marshal had not yet received a report from the State Medical Examiner’s Office, he replied. The man Roberson kept from going back into his burning home was fine and “walking around.”

Hebb asked in her closing arguments that the court not find probable cause for first-degree murder because a “definitive cause of death” was needed to have first-degree murder.

Prosecuting Attorney Emily Miller argued that Roberson was pursuing his firefighting duties when he became ill and later died, and that the fire was one that Beckner had confessed to setting.

Magistrate Mitchell found probable cause for first-degree murder and probable cause for the three first-degree arson charges. He instructed the state to provide a copy of the medical examiner’s report when it becomes available.

Hebb told Beckner that she would file a motion to set a bond. In West Virginia, bond in first-degree murder cases must be set by a circuit court judge.

— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com

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