More details emerge about abandoned school fire in Paris

Pre-trial hearing for Daniel Henson reveals cause of dangerous blaze


A pre-trial detention hearing for Daniel L. Henson, 24, of Paris offered additional information regarding a structure fire that razed the old Redmon School on S Central Street over the weekend. Henson appeared before Judge Matthew Sullivan on the morning of Monday, Dec. 4 after being apprehended by authorities in connection with the fire the day prior.

Assistant State’s Attorney Philip Dobelstein offered details surrounding the investigation of the fire, connecting Henson to the crime scene while also detailing the severity of the crime. 

In a proffer, or offer of proof, Dobelstein revealed authorities received reports of a structure fire around 2 a.m. on the morning of Sunday, Dec. 3. According to a press release from the Paris Police Department (PPD), local police, fire and ambulance crews responded to the scene immediately.

Per Dobelstein, PPD detectives Gough and McConnell received a briefing from Illinois State Fire Marshal and arson investigator Chris Handshy, who informed the detectives he suspected arson since the building was not connected to gas or electric utilities.

Detectives caught a break in the case when the resident of a nearby property allowed officers to review footage from their security camera. 

The footage showed an individual clad in blue jeans, a dark hooded sweatshirt, a Carhartt jacket and black mud boots entering the old school at 2 a.m., before leaving the the building at approximately 2:20 a.m. Another tip submitted to authorities revealed that someone matching that description was spotted at the Circle K gas station located at 813 S Main Street later that morning around 6 a.m.

Police reviewed surveillance footage from the gas station and identified the individual as Henson. Investigators familiar with Henson knew he frequently stayed in the abandoned hospital at 502 Shaw Street, next to the Edgar County Public Health Department (ECPHD). Upon arriving at the premises, officers noticed a ladder leading up to a second-story window which was not there previously. 

After searching the building, officers found Henson in the building’s third floor, wearing the same outfit seen in both security camera recordings.

Henson was immediately remanded to the custody of the Edgar County Sheriff’s Department, where he told investigators that he had been walking past Burger King during the early morning hours of Dec. 3 when found an old cereal box on the ground. Upon entering the abandoned building, Henson lit the cereal box aflame with his lighter, creating a makeshift torch to help him see as he navigated the old school’s dark interior. 

After noticing loose paper and trash strewn about the inside of the building, Henson told investigators he thought the best way to clean the trash would be to burn it, so he started a fire. Henson reported to investigators that he later added two mattresses he found in the building to the fire before leaving.

Dobelstein’s proffer was sufficient evidence for the court to move forward with a trial. 

Currently, Henson is charged with one count of aggravated arson (Class X Felony), one count of residential arson (Class 2 Felony) and one count of criminal trespass to state-supported land (Class A Misdemeanor).

“Based on the proffer, I find there was probable cause that a felony was committed,” said Sullivan.

Public defender Nathaniel Harsy, representing Henson, inquired about the validity of the state’s proposal to block a pretrial release for Henson. Sullivan asked Dobelstein on what grounds the prosecution motioned to prevent Henson’s release, to which Dobelstein directed Sullivan’s attention to the state’s petition.

“I believe it (the petition) does stand as required, your honor,” Dobelstein explained.

After further review and discussion, Sullivan agreed. According to Sullivan, given the nature of the fire and Henson’s recent history of criminal offenses, releasing Henson before he stands trial could put others in danger. The blaze, which entirely consumed the abandoned Redmon School and sent massive tongues of flame shooting into the night sky, burned hot enough to damage a neighboring home at 916 S Central Street. 

“The defendant acted without regard for the safety of other people,” said Sullivan. “Other buildings nearby were close enough to be damaged.”

“The only way to mitigate the threat posed by the defendant would be to forego a pre-trial release,” Sullivan explained, later adding, “He is to remain in the custody of the Sheriff.”

Henson is scheduled to appear for a preliminary hearing on Monday, Dec. 11 at 2:15 in courtroom two of the Edgar County Courthouse. A jury trial is 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024.

Redmon School, fire, Henson, arson