Johnson County investigators search for suspects in suspicious fire, van theft

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FRANKLIN, Ind. – A van that went missing after a house fire in Johnson County has been found.

The fire broke out at a home in the 2500 block of North Graham Road between Commerce Drive and Earlywood Drive in Franklin. Crews were dispatched around 4:50 a.m.

Flames and smoke could be seen coming from the home, which was fully engulfed.

Johnson County Sheriff Doug Cox said Franklin Fire Department officials were calling the fire suspicious shortly after arriving at the home. The couple that lives in the house, Pauline and Forrest Wells, was in Florida for the winter.

A vehicle belonging to the homeowners was also missing from a garage. The vehicle is a blue 1999 Pontiac Montana van with Indiana license plate D869MX, police said.

Police found the van in Franklin late Wednesday morning. It was sitting in the parking lot of the Franklin Boys and Girls Club. Cox said snow on top of the van indicates it had been sitting outside for at least two days. The van was towed away from the Boys and Girls Club and taken in for evidence technicians to examine.

“This will be valuable to us for a couple reasons, fingerprints and DNA,” Cox said. “That will be two key things that we will be looking for inside of this van.”

Cox believes finding the person who stole the van will likely lead to answers in the suspicious fire. It’s possible that whoever stole the van used it to make multiple trips to the home.

“We could have a situation where somebody has been occupying the home for a few days,” Cox said. “Maybe this van was stolen a few days ago and somebody either returned to the residence to cause the destruction that they did this morning. Or, they may have set a fire that was going to take a while, to kindle in the home and eventually caught the home on fire.”

Investigators also found a shoe print on a barn door that had apparently been kicked open at some point. That shoe print could also prove useful in the investigation, Cox said.

Pauline Wells and her husband planned to fly back to Indiana Wednesday after family members told them about the fire at their home. She said she can’t think of anyone who would target their home, but she assumes it was somebody who knew they spent their winters in Florida.

“I feel sorry for the kind of people that have to steal from others and who set fires to do damage or cover up or whatever it was,” Wells said. “And it is interesting to me that anybody would need to steal a 1998 Pontiac Montana. You know, that’s desperate if you need a car like that.”

The Wells had lived in the home since having it built along Graham Road nearly 43 years ago. Several family members spent Wednesday observing the damage and talking to investigators.

“Devastating and sick,” said Sandy Higginbotham, the Wells’ daughter. “And I want to catch the person who stole the van and did this to my parents’ house.”

“It’s just hard to think that there are people out here that would do something like this, this time of year,” said the Wells’ daughter-in-law Sally Wells.

Pauline and Forrest Wells always took precautions before leaving their home for the winter, Sally Wells said. Lights inside the home were set on timers to give the appearance that somebody was home in the evening. Forrest Wells would always unplug the garage door opener and disconnect the batteries on the cars parked in the garage. Whoever took the van either knew that, or thought to reconnect the car battery.

Other family members in the area would also visit the house every few days to check on things, Sally Wells said.

“My husband and son was out here on Sunday, everything was fine,” she said.

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