A man arrested last month in a Dawson County drug sting has now been charged with setting the Dahlonega Rite Aid on fire two days earlier.
Authorities say the clothes Hubert Jeffery “Jeff” Smith, 42, of Lumpkin County, was wearing both days is proof he was involved in setting the fire.
A security camera video from the store showed a white male in a white T-shirt and baseball cap setting the fire near a chemical section in the pharmacy.
“After seeing surveillance photos of the fire suspect in Lumpkin County, we made a beeline back to our property room, where we had the T-shirt and ball cap,” said Dawson County Sheriff’s Office Inv. Jimmi Smith, who is no relation to the suspect. “It’s absolutely unmistakable that it’s the same clothes.”
Jeff Smith, who is being held without bond in Dawson County for the drug arrest, is charged with first-degree arson, according to Lumpkin County Sheriff’s Inv. Darren Martin.
Lumpkin County authorities have a hold placed on the suspect, according to Dawson County Sheriff’s Lt. Tony Wooten.
Sheriff’s officials followed leads to Jeff Smith after witnesses said they saw a black Dodge Durango with front-end damage leaving the Rite-Aid around the time of the fire March 2.
Authorities were able to determine an acquaintance of the suspect owned the vehicle and later confirmed she drove him to the Rite-Aid the day of the blaze.
The woman was not aware the suspect had set the fire until later, said Jimmi Smith, who was familiar with the woman.
The woman, who was not charged in the case, initially denied any involvement, but later admitted to Jimmi Smith she had driven the suspect home from the Rite Aid on the day of the fire.
During the course of the investigation, Smith and Dawson County Inv. Jennifer Wright, who was working the March 4 Dawson County drug case, learned the vehicle owner was dating a man named “Jeff” and received information that the man’s mug shot had been in the local newspaper for his Dawson County drug arrest.
Wright recognized the suspect as Jeff Smith, one of eight people arrested on drug charges in Dawson County two days after the fire.
Investigators Smith and Wright received information that Jeff Smith allegedly admitted he went to the Rite Aid, got angry when he could not find what he was looking for and set the store on fire, Wooten said.
Investigators said Jeff Smith also admitted he was the man in a photo retrieved from the Dahlonega pharmacy prior to learning where and when the photo was taken, Inv. Smith said.
“He asked for a lawyer about 30 seconds later,” said Jimmi Smith, who added investigators from surrounding counties continuously work together to solve cases.
“Criminals don’t know where the county lines stop and start. Any officer in Georgia would want to help find a suspect who’d start an extremely dangerous fire in a business, during business hours with other people inside,” he said.
The store, which was gutted by the fire, reopened on Monday, after spending several weeks operating out of a temporary pharmacy in the store’s parking lot.