Purchase photos

Bar owner pleads no contest to arson





The owner of a popular bar and grill heavily damaged in an October fire pleaded no contest Tuesday in Ellis County District Court to a single count of aggravated arson.

Based on the state's sentencing guidelines, Benjamin Michael "Mike" Butler likely will be sentenced to two year's probation under the supervision of community corrections. Butler was charged with aggravated arson -- aggravated because a person was in the complex -- in late December when the fire was started.

The fire, apparently started when Butler left a candle burning when he left T-Bone's Sports Bar and Grill, 2415 General Hays, during the early morning hours of Oct. 9, gutted the business and caused extensive smoke damage to other businesses in the Centennial Shopping Center.

Under the terms of the plea, Butler is expected to be required to make restitution amounting to nearly $350,000 to six other businesses damaged by the fire.

The other businesses were Ralph "Buddy" Waldo Butler II, Heartland Crafts and Gifts and Merle Norman Cosmetics, Centennial Salon, Nex-Tech, K-Hearting Amusement and Western Beverage.

At Tuesday's hearing, Butler agreed to waive his preliminary hearing and pleaded no contest to the charge against him.

As District Judge Ed Bouker went through a litany of questions surrounding his plea, Butler frequently answered, "Yes, your honor."

Ellis County Attorney Tom Drees read from the affidavit supporting the filing of the charge, detailing a link between the clothing Butler was wearing when Hays police and fire departments were on the scene of the investigation.

Later, Nex-Tech provided Hays Police Detective Dave Bunger with a copy of surveillance video showing a person wearing similar clothing enter and leave T-Bones prior to the fire being reported.

During an interrogation with Bunger, Butler admitted being in the building and said he left a candle burning in the building when he left.

Butler told Bunger he wasn't sure if the candle would start a fire or not.

With the help of the Kansas Fire Marshal's office, it was determined the fire started in the office of T-Bones.