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Man Charged in High School Arson Freed on Bail

June 7, 1995

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) _ A man charged in a high school arson was released on bail Wednesday, even though an FBI agent testified that he admitted burning down the school amid racial unrest over a white principal’s stand against interracial dates.

FBI agent Kelvin King also said Christopher Lynn Johnson threatened to kill people in revenge if he found out they helped law officers investigate the fire that burned down Randolph County High School in Wedowee, 135 miles northeast of Montgomery.

Though prosecutors warned that Johnson is a security risk, U.S. Magistrate John Carroll ruled that he could be released from jail under strict home detention rules that bar him from contact with any witnesses. He set bail at $100,000 but did not require it to be secured. Arraignment was set for June 16.

Johnson, 25, was arrested last week and charged with arson and possession of an unregistered destructive device in connection with the Aug. 6 fire at the rural Wedowee school.

Carroll said the charges against Johnson were serious but the ``high bond and house detention should protect the safety of the community.″ He also said Johnson had no history of violence.

The fire culminated months of racial tension that began in February 1994, when the white high school principal, Hulond Humphries, spoke against interracial dating at the upcoming prom.

Some blacks sought Humphries’ dismissal and boycotted the school, sending youngsters to ``Freedom Schools″ like those set up during the civil rights struggle in the 1960s.

Johnson’s father, the the Rev. Emmett Johnson of Wedowee, was a leader of the protests.

The school board refused calls to oust Humphries; eventually Humphries was removed as principal and given a job as a consultant in the rebuilding of the school.

In testimony at Wednesday’s detention hearing, King said an informant secretly taped Johnson admitting to burning down the school and threatening to kill those who might help investigators. No tape was played during the hearing and no transcripts were read.

Defense lawyer Ron Wise attempted to show that the alleged comments by Johnson were not necessarily threatening and that no one had been harmed or even needed federal government protection during the investigation. He said some of King’s testimony was based on ``triple hearsay.″

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