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$20 debt fueled Turlock cheese plant fire
Clardy Erika
Erika Clardy

An argument over a debt of $20 is what prosecutors say was the catalyst that led three women to ignite a fire that burned to the ground a vacant Turlock cheese plant, causing an estimated $5 million in damage.

A preliminary hearing began Friday for Lanette Sullivan, 46, Wanda White, 45, and Erika Clardy, 24, on charges of attempted murder and arson of an inhabited dwelling for the February fire that left the former Lactalis cheese plant on W. Main Street a pile of charred rubble. The hearing is being held to determine if there is enough cause to hold the women over for trial on the charges lodged against them.

According to the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office, the women set the fire because they were angry at Terry Sump, who had been living at the vacant plant with other transients.

Sump testified Friday that he had previously dated Sullivan and had been arrested at least three times on domestic violence charges stemming from altercations he had with Sullivan.

On Feb. 19, Sump said Sullivan was at the cheese plant and the two got into an argument about $20 that someone owed to Sullivan. He stated the argument turned physical when Sullivan hit him in the face. He said he used a “bear hug” to grab Sullivan and physically remove her from the plant.

Sump testified that a short time later, Sullivan returned to the cheese plant and that she was accompanied by White, Clardy and an unidentified man. Sump said some of them were holding objects that looked like pipes, but could also have been broomsticks. He said he was afraid of what the group might have in mind for him, so he climbed up into the rafters.

Sullivan followed Sump, but he blocked her from getting all the way up, which is when he said he was hit with the object that was either a pipe or broomstick.

Sump testified he heard Clardy yell out that they could “smoke him out” and that Sullivan encouraged the idea. He said it wasn’t long after that statement was made that smoke started to billow up to the rafters. He stated the fire spread quickly and flames were all around him. Sump said he saw the women and the man leave, at which point he fell from the rafters and then made his way out of the burning building.

Sump testified that later he received a Facebook message from Sullivan asking him if “he had any marshmallows.”

Capt. Jason Bernard, a fire investigator with the Turlock Fire Department testified a point of origin was found inside a northeast facing wall inside the building. He stated the fire had left a ‘V’ shape pattern on the wall that funneled down to a pile of burned debris that still had charred newspapers and Styrofoam cups around it.

Bernard said the investigation had ruled out a utility or natural cause to the fire. He testified they were unable to rule out an accidental cause, but that they found no signs the blaze was unintentional.

The defense attorneys for the three women have suggested the fire could have been started from the fire pit Sump used to cook food or from an oil lantern he used. Bernard testified he found no lantern in the rubble and no evidence an accelerant, like an oil or fuel, was used in the fire.

The preliminary hearing is set to resume Monday.