horse fire

Jonathan Espinoza-Vasquez, left, is charged with arson in a Clayton County barn fire where two dozen horses were killed. (Special Photo)

RIVERDALE — A Clayton County stable fire that killed two dozen horses was intentionally set, fire officials announced Wednesday.

The man believed to be responsible for the fire is now in police custody. Jonathan Espinoza-Vasquez, 23, of Stockbridge was arrested Thursday, April 12. Because he has pending charges in Henry County, he is currently being held in the Henry County Jail and is expected to face charges of first degree arson and aggravated animal cruelty in Clayton once those charges are disposed.

“We believe that the fire was intentionally set in retaliation for a domestic incident relating to a member of Mr. Espinoza’s family and members of the property owner’s family,” Fire Chief Landry Merkison said during a press conference Wednesday morning at fire headquarters. “At this point, we are declaring this fire was arson.”

Merkison said investigators are still looking into just what would incite Espinoza-Vasquez to allegedly set fire to a stable with horses still inside. When firefighters arrived on the scene just before midnight on April 4, the stable was fully engulfed in flames.

Twenty-four horses trapped inside the two-story structure did not survive. Only one was able to escape, but it was burned and injured.

Deputy Chief Fire Marshal David Vazquez said Espinoza-Vasquez was at one time in a relationship with the daughter of the property owner at 1877 Noah’s Ark Road. The couple share an infant child. At some time prior to April 4, members of the property owner’s family allegedly assaulted someone related to Espinoza-Vasquez, prompting him to return to the property where the mother of his child resides, Vazquez said.

The alleged assault is currently under investigation with the Clayton County Police Department. Charges are expected in that incident, though Vazquez said that Espinoza-Vasquez was not expected to be considered a suspect in that case.

Espinoza-Vasquez was wanted in Henry County for failure to appear on misdemeanor charges of obstructing an officer, fleeing or eluding police, and driving without a valid license or without proof of insurance. According to fire officials, Espinoza-Vasquez is a Mexican citizen and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has placed a hold on him while he’s in custody.

He is set to appear for a preliminary hearing in Henry County on May 8.

Merkison said Clayton County Fire and Emergency Services received several tips from community members and through Crime Stoppers in relation to the case. It was the first tip received through Crime Stoppers that led to the break in the case.

“We thank that person for coming forward, and, through some social media posts and some texts that they were able to share, it’s what lead us to Espinoza,” Vazquez said.

While he is denying any involvement in the fire, officials said, police have evidence that connects Espinoza-Vasquez to the property on the night of the fire. At this point in the investigation, they are not able to determine how or where the fire was started because of the amount of hay and other flammable material inside.

There was no electricity running to the stable or any other sources that could cause an accidental fire, Vazquez said.

He said that authorities are still working to track down the owners of the horses so that the district attorney can make a determination on the number of charges, and he believes that Espinoza-Vasquez was not acting alone.

“This is an ongoing investigation,” Vazquez said. “Those (suspected family) members are going to be investigated and we are going to bring them to justice as well.”

Authorities are still asking anyone with information about the incident to come forward. Tips can be provided anonymously through Crime Stoppers online or by calling the tip line at 404-577-TIPS (8477). You can also contact CCFES or Clayton County PD directly, or dial 911.