ORANGE PARK, Fla. - The home where Somer Thompson was killed 5 years ago was burned to the ground Thursday afternoon. Officially, it was done for firefighter training, but it also helped the victim's mother and her community gain another bit of closure by eliminating a permanent reminder of the tragedy.
Small fires were started and extinguished in the Gano Avenue house all morning while firefighters with the Orange Park, Clay County and NAS Jacksonville fire departments conducted training. About 1:10 p.m., the murdered girl's mother joined firefighters, setting the house on fire.
"I get to burn their house down," Diena Thompson said. "I am the big bad wolf this time, knocking down your door."
A round of cheers went up when smoke started pouring from the windows of the burning house, and again when flames became visible about 10 minutes later.
"Burn, baby, burn," Thompson said.
Seven-year-old Somer Renee Thompson was last seen walking home from school on Gano Avenue about 2:45 p.m. Monday.
Seven-year-old Somer disappeared in 2009 while walking home from school. The Clay County Sheriff's Office said she was kidnapped, raped and suffocated inside the home before her body was found in a Georgia landfill days later.
Jared Harrell, 29, now convicted and service a life sentence, was living in the home at the time after his parents moved out and foreclosure procedures were underway.
When the bank took possession of the house, they transferred ownership to the Somer Thompson Foundation.
Diena Thompson suggested something useful the community could do with the house where her daughter was killed in 2009: Burn it down.
As flames ripped through the house, Thompson watched and remembered Somer.
"She's our sunshine, and she's going to save children; she's going to save lives," Thompson said. "She deserves nothing but glory for being the sacrificial lamb, and if she saves another child, then we've done something amazing."
She contacted the Orange Park Fire Department to suggest that the property could be used as a training site -- and that the house could be destroyed in the process. That training began Monday evening and concluded with the burning down of the house.
Thompson said she wanted something good to come from the tragedy and allowing first responders to train on the site was a first step to achieve that goal.
One of those who trained in the house before it was torched was a rescue dog named Peanut, the K-9 that tracked Somer's scent that stopped just outside Harrell's house.
"He kept trying to come back here," said Russ Perrone, Peanut's handler. "Unfortunately it ended up like too many of them do -- another bad ending."
OPFD Fire Chief Ty Silcox and his staff researched the requirements for this type of training and determined the location met the criteria. A certified "live fire trainer" was on scene, as required, and no evacuation of residents was needed.
Silcox added that it was an emotional day for the firefighters.
Many from the community came out to support the Thompson family and watch the neighborhood rid itself of a tangible reminder of Somer's death.
"It's been a long time coming," Silcox said. " I think the community is ready to start healing, and I think being a part of this is going to help the community start (to) heal."
As they had in the first days after Somer's murder, neighbors held their children close Thursday as they watched the eyesore burn to the ground.
"This house is an eyesore to me and my mother," said Kara Boomhower. "We look at it from our kitchen windows. Lord knows what happened in that house and I think it's just safe that it burns down because I don't want to be reminded of the memories."
Smaller training fires were lit and extinguished by participants throughout the morning. There were road closures involved and extra law enforcement presence in the area throughout the day.
The firefighters' goal was to get the fire completed before school gets out at 3:15 p.m., all but the brick walls had collapsed, but flames were still coming from the embers.
Thompon hasn't decided exactly what will happen with the property, but is committed to turn the site that was the source of such evil into something good for the community.
"Thank God for the people who have to look at this, and thank God when they see what a beautiful thing will come to fruition on this property after we're done with this."
Brad Snow has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years. He said anger and relief also rose into the sky-- with many neighbors ready to see this land turn into something that would honor Somer.
"Next I'd like to see maybe a playground. Something positive for the kids in the neighborhood, something good out of something bad."
Silcox said Thompson has already done something beautiful, by giving first responders a training opportunity that could save a life.
"It's probably been five or more years since we've had a structure in the town that we've been able to do live fire training in," said Silcox. "I think the benefit to this community is the healing process that should take place and we're looking forward to that."
News4Jax also spoke to Clay County's fire chief, who said they get about five donated homes for these sorts of training a year.
Thompson has hired contractors to clean up the rubble over the next few days-- and then she'll announce what she plans to do with the land.
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