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Authorities continue investigation after Ga. police department is consumed by fire

Paperwork, computers, fingerprint machines, printers, weapons, ballistic vests and gun belts for the department’s officers were destroyed

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Photo/Facebook via Cohutta, Ga. Police Department

By Andrew Wilkins
Chattanooga Times Free Press

COHUTTA, Ga. — The investigation into an early-morning fire that destroyed the Cohutta Police Departments’s headquarters Dec. 18 is ongoing, the Georgia city’s police chief said.

“We don’t know anything yet,” Chief Greg Fowler said in a phone interview. “The state fire marshal is on the scene along with other investigators from the insurance company of the Rhyne and Son. They’re still working diligently.”

Arson hasn’t been ruled out, Fowler said, and investigators are still trying to determine where and how the fire started.

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Several nearby businesses and a church have offered their security footage to investigators, and he said accessing that video is being coordinated.

Only a few file drawers containing paperwork were saved from the fire, Fowler said, and most of the equipment was lost, including about 25 computers, fingerprint machines, printers, weapons, ballistic vests and gun belts for the department’s 12 police officers.

No evidence was lost because it’s housed off-site, Fowler said, and there were no injuries to officers or damage to the department’s patrol vehicles. Cohutta uses Whitfield County’s jail and 911 call center.

The fire was hot enough to buckle the building’s steel beams, the chief said. Built in the early 1970s, the building was rented by the city and shared with Rhyne and Son, a local wholesale warehouse based in Catoosa County, Fowler said.

Jevin Jensen, chairman of the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners, said Wednesday officials and the county sheriff have made sure that part of the county has police coverage and promised to provide whatever supplies the Cohutta police need for the near future.

“It’s amazing how quick that building went up,” Jensen said in a phone interview. “But we’re glad it happened at night and nobody got hurt.” He also said he was thankful no other buildings were damaged, noting that Cohutta’s downtown has experienced a renaissance recently.

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The Police Department was based in a rented building, Jensen said, so it’s the owner’s decision how to rebuild. Temporarily, the Police Department has moved into the city’s vacant fire department building, Jensen said, empty since the county took over fire services a few years ago.

The Whitfield County Fire Department has a station about a mile from Cohutta, Jensen said. Fire officials could not be reached for comment before deadline.

The old fire station is a little cramped, but Jensen said it will work for now. No decision has been made on where Cohutta police will be based long term, he said. State officials have also provided trailers for police operations, Fowler said.

“We have a long road to recovery,” Cohutta Mayor Ronald Shinnick said in a phone interview. He said Cohutta is a city of 700 to 800 residents, and they really pulled together by offering meals to the city’s first responders and assisting with the cleanup.

Describing the town’s recent renaissance, Shinnick said a new restaurant, the Red Wolfe Grill, opened during the pandemic. A general store, then an ice cream shop opened after that, Shinnick said. Between the new businesses and holiday events, he said the town is often compared to Mayberry, the small town from television’s “The Andy Griffith Show.”

Shinnick also said it’s too soon to know where the Police Department will base its headquarters long term, and city and county officials are focused on getting police operations back up to speed for the near future.

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