Police suspect teacher in rash of arson cases — (Columbus Dispatch)

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Columbus Dispatch

Saturday, April 15, 2000

A Grove City middle-school teacher who crashed her car into a home early yesterday morning is suspected in a bizarre string of about 15 arson fires in the past two weeks, police said. Elizabeth Cooper, 27, of 2323 Sonora Dr., was in critical condition last night at Ohio State University Medical Center with a head injury from the accident.

One of her bosses said that Cooper always has been “bubbly and energetic,” but that her personality changed and aberrant behavior began after she was assaulted about two weeks ago. Police gave this account of what happened yesterday: Shortly after 1 a.m., a Jeep Wrangler was spotted speeding east on Holton Road, just outside Grove City.  At the time, a deputy with the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, a Grove City police officer and a Jackson Township paramedic were responding to a string of fires late Wednesday and early yesterday morning.

“The officers were actually following the pattern of the fires” to guess where the arsonist would strike next, said deputy Terry Wassmuth, who investigated the crash. That’s when they saw Cooper’s vehicle run a stop sign and pass them. “By the time they could get turned around, she had already wrecked,” Wassmuth said.

The car failed to make a left turn and careened more than 300 feet through a front lawn, leveled a 9-foot pine tree and slammed into the front of Dan and Jerri Turner’s ranch house at 1375 Holton Rd.  Mr. Turner awoke to what he thought was an explosion. “I come out of the bed in about one-tenth of a second just screaming, ‘Danny!’,” he said. Danny, his 16-year-old son, whose room the vehicle had hit, yelled back that he was OK.

A 27-inch television set against the wall was thrown across the room and landed at the foot of his bed. “His room’s absolutely destroyed,” Mrs. Turner said. “You can just see how close enough it was to a disaster. ”Mr. Turner estimates the crash caused $70,000 worth of damage to his home.  Cooper was flown by helicopter to OSU Medical Center. Cooper’s family, who gathered last night at the hospital, declined to comment.  Because of her injuries, Grove City police have been unable to interview Cooper, who they say could face charges of arson, theft and receiving stolen property.  Grove City police said the possible charges stem from what they discovered when they investigated the crash.

“Property was found in the Jeep that was identified as stolen out of vehicles in Grove City,” Capt. Dennis Deskins said.  Those items include a cellular phone and a purse with credit cards that police say were taken from cars on Saturday and Sunday.  In both cases, papers inside the car were set on fire.

In addition, at least 15 arsons in two weeks — one house and the rest vehicles — have been linked to one another.  Grove City police said they think that Cooper set those fires. Cooper has worked as a foreign-language teacher at Finland Middle School since August 1995, said Jeff Warner, spokesman for South-Western City Schools. Warner said that school officials learned about Cooper’s accident through the sheriff’s office, but that he knows nothing of any investigation linking her to arsons or thefts.”

She is a very good teacher, and her performance has been very good,” he said. “We’re saddened by the incident and hope she will recover. ”Brian Cantrell, who lives across the street from Cooper, said, “We chatted when we saw each other outside.  I just hope she’s OK.  She’s a really nice person.  She left me a Christmas gift outside my door from the bath-and-body shop where she worked.”Management officials at Bath & Body Works, 2185 Stringtown Rd., said Cooper worked part time at the store.

For the past two years, Cooper also worked weekends as a server at Max & Erma’s, 411 Metro Place N. in Dublin, said Nora Kenworthy, an assistant manager at the restaurant. “She’s a great employee. She’s very bubbly. Very outgoing. She was very good at her tables,” she said.  Ali Starling, office manager at the restaurant, said, “She’d walk up to you and put a smile on your face.” Kenworthy said Cooper’s behavior changed radically over the past two weeks.  She said Cooper told her that she had been attacked two weeks ago, but that she didn’t report it to police. Immediately after, her performance slumped, and “she wasn’t herself,” Kenworthy said.  Kenworthy said Cooper told her that she was taking anti-depressants prescribed by a family doctor, but that her condition only worsened with the medication.

When she went to work last weekend, she broke down several times and couldn’t make it through her shift, her boss said. Cooper also told Kenworthy that she shoplifted more than $100 of merchandise from Meijer, 1661 Hilliard-Rome Rd., on April 2.  She was caught and received a summons on the theft charge, according to court documents. She has no other criminal record. Cooper confided to her boss, “I don’t understand what’s wrong with me. I’ve never done anything like this. ”Experts say trauma can affect people in strange ways.”Certain traumatic behaviors can indeed and do cause individuals to engage in bizarre behavior at times,” said Nick Marzella, a psychologist who works with law-enforcement agencies.  In another bizarre twist in the case, residents at the fires told Jackson Township fire officials that tulips had been stolen from their yards. Found near Cooper’s Jeep at the crash site was a bouquet of red tulips still attached to their bulbs. “This is far from normal behavior, especially for a schoolteacher,” Deskins said.