Arrest made in fire that destroyed New Opportunity School for Women in Berea

jkegley@herald-leader.comNovember 14, 2012 

Police in Madison County arrested a suspect in an arson fire that destroyed the New Opportunity School for Women in Berea almost a year ago.

Gary Claston Davidson, 30, was charged with third-degree burglary and second-degree arson in the theft and fire at the school's headquarters Dec. 12, 2011.

Davidson is accused of setting a fire that gutted the headquarters of the non-profit. The 25-year-old program has helped hundreds of low-income Appalachian women develop confidence, find jobs and pursue higher education.

The fire apparently was set to cover up the theft of cash from a cash box, police have said. Davidson was arrested by state police, who were investigating the arson, and Berea police, who were investigating the theft.

Police said at the time that they had strong leads in the case, including surveillance footage from a nearby church that showed a man emerging from the building. However, no new information was released for about 11 months.

Berea police Capt. Ken Clark said Davidson had been a "person of interest" since shortly after the fire, but authorities could not find him. Davidson lived part of the time in Louisville and part of the time in Berea, Clark said.

On Friday, police got word that Davidson was scheduled to appear in district court in Madison County. Officers met him at the courthouse and took him to headquarters for an interview.

A short time later, they charged him with burglary. Clark would not say whether Davidson had confessed.

"We just felt we had established probable cause to charge him," Clark said.

Berea police referred the case to state police, who charged Davidson with arson. He was being held in the Madison County jail on $10,000 bond.

After the fire, the New Opportunity School for Women moved to First Christian Church on Chestnut Street in Berea. Through donations and grants, the school managed to reacquire most of the supplies, including clothes, computers and books, that were destroyed in the fire.

Many students at the New Opportunity School for Women, which has been featured on Oprah Winfrey's TV show, are domestic violence victims and women with little education who are seeking to improve the lives of their families. The school's three-week sessions are provided free of charge.

Josh Kegley: (859) 231-3197. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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