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Little Nashville Opry manager charged with arson

March 6, 2012

The manager of a concert hall that hosted some of country music's top acts was arrested on an arson charge Tuesday in connection with the September 2009 blaze that destroyed the hall, authorities said.

Little Nashville Opry Manager James Bowyer, 75, was arrested by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Indiana fire marshal and the Brown County sheriff, county prosecutor Jim Oliver said.

Bowyer was being held in the Brown County Jail on $20,000 bond. It wasn't clear whether he had an attorney. Oliver said he expected Bowyer to have an initial hearing in the Brown Circuit Court on Wednesday.

There's no evidence of anyone else being involved in the fire, the prosecutor said.

Despite hosting many of country music's top acts after it opened in 1975, the 2,000-seat Little Nashville Opry was deep in debt at the time of the fire as were Bowyer and sole owner Esther Hamilton, a friend of Bowyer, ATF Special Agent Michael Vergon said in a probable cause affidavit.

The Opry owed more than $280,000 in property taxes, vendor invoices, insurance and performer fees at the time of the fire, he said.

Hamilton, "a frequent patron of several Indiana casinos," where she liked to play the slot machines, had gambling losses of $150,000 over four years and debts totaling about $685,000 at the time of the fire, Vergon said. Bowyer had gambling losses of more than $160,000 and just $148 in his savings account at the time of the fire.

Eight samples of fire debris showed traces of ignitable liquids, and part of the Opry's sprinkler system had been disconnected, Vergon said.

Hamilton had received a purchase offer of $2 million for the Opry in 2008, but the sale fell through when the financing company determined it wasn't worth that much, Vergon said. Hamilton, however, had spent the $250,000 in earnest money for personal expenses and to pay down gambling debts, the agent said.

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