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Wednesday, May 18, 2022

The Charles Smith III and Tonya Bundick Serial Arson Case

     The incendiary fires started on November 12, 2012 in Hopeton, a town 100 miles east of Richmond on Virginia's Eastern Shore, a peninsula along the Chesapeake Bay. Over the next four months volunteer firefighters in the county responded to 77 intentionally set fires involving abandoned houses, barns, camper trailers and various out-buildings that included a chicken coop.

     Arson investigators with the Virginia State Police and the Accomack County Sheriff's Office suspected that the serial fire-setter was either a disgruntled firefighter, a teenage boy sexually aroused by flames, or a young man committing arson simply for the thrill and excitement of causing havoc. Given the nature of the places burned, financial gain was not a motive. These were pathologically motivated arsons.

     Since the vast majority of arsonists are men the fire investigators were not looking for a woman. Female arsonists usually have histories of mental illness and set fire to their own property. A vast majority of the fires set by women are motivated by the need for sympathy and attention.

     On April 2, 2013, forty-five minutes after midnight, a Virginia State Trooper near the Eastern Shore community of Melfa pulled over a vehicle with an expired inspection sticker. (This was probably not the real reason for the stop.) The traffic stop occurred shortly after a nearby abandoned house had been torched. Later that morning a local prosecutor charged the occupants of the car, 38-year-old Charles Smith III and Tonya Bundick, his 40-year-old girlfriend, with setting the Melfa house fire.

     Smith (also known as Charlie Applegate) and Bundick were held without bail at the Accomack County Jail. They were both from Accomac, Virginia. Smith, the owner of a body shop was once captain of the Tasley Volunteer Fire Company. Smith and Bundick had planned to get married within a month.

     A Virginia State Police spokesperson at a press conference on April 2, 2013 said, "We are confident that Bundick and Smith are guilty of the majority of fires."According to reports, arson investigators had watched Smith set the Melfa house fire. He started the blaze with a towel soaked in gasoline.

     Tonya Bundick resided in a dwelling that sat next door to a shed that had been set on fire in December 2012.

     The authorities did not identify the motive behind the arson spree. Since the couple received no monetary gain from the fires their motives were probably pathological. Perhaps they were bored, or simply angry at the world.

     In October 2013 Charles Smith III pleaded guilty to 67 counts of arson. He faced life in prison and $5.6 million in fines. As part of the plea deal Smith agreed to testify against Tonya Bundick.

     Bundick's arson trial got underway in Virginia Beach in January 2014. Smith took the stand against the defendant as the prosecution's star witness. Following his testimony, Tonya Bundick entered an Alford plea to one count of arson. (She faced dozens of other arson charges.) By this plea Bundick did not admit guilt but acknowledged that the prosecution had enough evidence to convict.

     On September 15, 2014, the judge sentenced Tonya Bundick to ten years in prison. The judge, on April 23, 2015, sentenced Charles Smith III to fifteen years behind bars. Exactly why the arsonists set these fires remained a mystery.


  1. They were pulled over because the State Trooper saw Charlie get out of the van and go behind the Melfa house.(law enforcement had set up officers at buildings/houses that were thought to be possible targets). He (the trooper) watch as Charlie was at the back door striking a lighter or matches. The house did not torch as you wrote above, not that that changes anything because they did indeed set others that torched. Charlie has admitted to 54 of the fires and blamed Tonya for 15. I knew Charlie for a couple of years and I am in utter shock that this has went on. Crazy how well people hide their true self. But, I believe that most criminals hide some aspect of themselves.

    1. Thank you for the information.

    2. Charlie started setting the fires after he found out that Tonya was doing it. He loved her and didn't want her to get in trouble so he took over for her while she drove the car. I guess he was too dumb to realize that just being in the vehicle she was just as guilty as him. Tonya was more than happy to let him take the fall.

      Jim, if you are interested in how the police officer just happened to be in the right place that night, leave a message here and I can provide some interesting information.

  2. I can not believe that Charles would ever do something like this but maybe it was the loss of his mother and no longer being a part of the fire department. I have spoken to him via letters and he has remorse for his actions and is ashamed of what they did.

  3. The book American Fire by Monica Hesse is a fascinating read regarding the Eastern Shore arsonists.