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Trial set to start over burned Brown County music hall

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A trial is set to start this week for the former manager of a central Indiana concert hall on charges he set the fire that destroyed it more than four years ago.

Authorities allege 77-year-old James Bowyer of Morgantown set the September 2009 fire at Brown County's Little Nashville Opry in an attempt to claim $3 million in insurance money.

Bowyer's trial on arson and other charges is scheduled to start with jury selection on Tuesday.

Brown County Prosecutor Jim Oliver told The Herald-Times he intends to call 50 witnesses during a trial that could last two weeks.

Bowyer's lawyer has said his client had no reason to burn the business since he wasn't listed on the insurance.

The 2,000-seat concert hall opened in 1975 just outside Nashville. The venue hosted such performers as Johnny Cash, George Strait, the Oak Ridge Boys and Trisha Yearwood.

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's, ATF Special Agent Michael Vergon said in a probable cause affidavit in 2012.

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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