UPDATE: The trial dates are set for a man who is accused of burning a Mountain Grove church.

James Hopkins III maintained a plea of not guilty on Oct. 31. The jury trial is set for April 8-10, 2024.

His next appearance in court will be on March 7, 2024.

Original Story

MOUNTAIN GROVE, Mo. – The Southside Baptist Church fire in Mountain Grove was found to be intentionally started and a suspect was arrested.

“To have somebody apprehended within 24 hours is an accomplishment,” Fire Chief Mark Bushong said. “Generally there’s a large process, interviews that you have to go through to find this person of interest. And then you don’t have somebody charged. But this was this was kind of an odd situation.”

James Lee Hopkins III, born in 1994, of Liberty, South Carolina, was charged with three felonies: two counts of second-degree burglary and one count of first-degree arson.

According to court documents, Mountain Grove police were called to the church at 6:29 p.m. on June 10. It was already on fire when they arrived.

“When you get fire in attics that are not separated by partitions and it spreads, then all that stuff falls down,” Bushong said. “It just makes a mess and it destroys everything.”

Court documents say police inspected broken windows to see if they had been broken into or blasted out by the fire. They found evidence of the former, as well as bank information, mail and receipts lying on the ground. Inside the church was an office that appeared to have been turned over by someone.

Drawers were left open and a portion of the desk had been flipped. The pastor said he believed the doors of the church were locked earlier that day.

“The southeast wing got water damage and smoke damage,” Bushong said. “Maybe it’s got like some tables and chairs and stuff [that] would be salvageable, but that’s about it.”

The day after, on June 11 around 3:56 p.m., an anonymous caller contacted police to tell them she stopped to give a ride to a man she saw walking along the road. She reported he seemed strange and turned down her offer.

She mentioned that he also told her he had just burned down a church. After the anonymous tip, officers found Hopkins near the Dunn exit of Highway 60.

“He was actually on his way out of town,” Bushong said. “We were fortunate to get the tips that we did and that led the police officers to him.  I think the good Lord was saying, Hey, don’t mess with my church.”

At 4:27 p.m. the day of the fire, two hours before officers were called to the burning church, they received a call from someone about an intoxicated Hopkins on their home’s porch. His sister back home told him that if he could make it back to South Carolina, he could stay with her. Hopkins began traveling again, getting a ride from near Rogersville to Mountain Grove.

At the police station, officers interviewed Hopkins. It was found he was a homeless man who decided to travel from South Carolina to Osceola, Missouri, after losing a job on April 23. From Osceola, he turned and traveled to Springfield.

In Hopkins’ possession was a green bank bag with Southside Church written on it, a t-shirt with “Southside Youth Group” printed on the front, various first-aid supplies and a Bible.

“I’m thankful that the police department did such an amazing job at the investigation,” Pastor Josh Miller said. “My hope is that through this, [Hopkins] can come to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. In my heart, I’ve already forgiven him for what he has done.”

Since the news of the fire, Miller said he’s already received an outpouring of help from the community.

“Sunday morning, we gathered at First Baptist Church, which was right down the road, and they offered us their gym to use,” Miller said. “So we were able to be together the very next morning.”

Investigators are still sifting through the rubble to determine just how bad the damage is.

“The shock is still there being that hasn’t even been a week yet,” Miller said. “We’re still very, just heartbroken.”

South Side Baptist plans to rebuild the current property off of Lake Street.

“Without my faith, I don’t know what I’d be doing right now, but because of that, I just know that God has a plan and he will guide us,” Miller said. “We have found a place to have services in on Sunday at the YMCA here in town. So we’ll do that and then just start trying to rebuild.”

No mention of the cause of the fire was mentioned in the probable cause statement.

Original article, published June 12, 2023:

MOUNTAIN GROVE, Mo. — A church in Mountain Grove burned Saturday night.

The Southside Baptist Church was severely damaged in the fire. According to a Mountain Grove Fire Department social media post, they were called at 6:20 p.m. Saturday, June 10. The caller said that smoke was coming from every vent on the roof, the post reads.

The fire department was joined by the Cabool Fire Department, the City of Houston Fire Ladder, the Norwood Community Volunteer Fire Department and the Mansfield Fire Department.