Homeless American English teacher charged with arson in S. Taiwan

Homeless American English teacher charged for setting fire to bar in Pingtung, Taiwan, release pending passport

Harris. (Photo from Harris Facebook page)

Harris. (Photo from Harris Facebook page)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — A homeless American English teacher has been charged with arson for allegedly setting fire to a bar at a campground in southern Taiwan on Sept. 20 and is awaiting release from jail pending the arrival of his passport.

After engaging in a dispute with the owner of a campground in Pingtung County, the suspect identified as Harris allegedly set fire to a small bar on the premises on the evening of Sept. 20. After fleeing the scene of the crime and confessing to it on Facebook, he was stopped by police that afternoon for driving erratically on a motorcycle.

Acquaintances say that Harris, who lists his hometown as Vero Beach, Florida, initially worked at the English cram school Geng Hsin Language Center in Tainan City from 2013 to 2014. However, a former colleague claims that he had struggled with mental illness and eventually found it more difficult to remain gainfully employed.

After being terminated by his last employer, Harris moved into a rental hut on the three-acre Rock Garden camping area in Pingtung County's Manzhou Township. On Sept. 17, the owner of the campground evicted the former lecturer at Southern Taiwan University of Technology from the property, apparently causing him to become highly agitated.

Harris then left a long, ranting manifesto on his Facebook page giving his side of the story of the eviction. He claimed that the owner of the campground had allowed him to pay his rent by working for 30 hours a week.

Harris bitterly wrote that the owner's reason for the eviction was that "He can't really get the full enjoyment out of his property unless he is perfectly alone." Apparently distraught at his plight, Harris took to Facebook on Sept. 20 at 4:22 p.m. to cryptically write, "I've never written a suicide note. This one will be read backwards unless you read it in real time."

Burned out bar. (Photo from reader)

Incredibly, four minutes later at 4:26 p.m., he confessed on Facebook to setting fire to propane tanks at the Rock Garden Pub: "I just set fire to The Rock Garden. I turned on the gas, cut the lines, and soaked the bar and kitchen with gasoline. If it doesn't burn down, it isn't my fault." The act appears to be an attempt at getting revenge on the campground owner, as he also owns the pub.

At 4:41 p.m., he posted the message "It's loneliness, isn't it?" Harris' friends were greatly alarmed at his message and asked him to seek help and inform the police.

Harris was not seen or heard from for the next three days until he was spotted riding a motorcycle in an obviously inebriated state. The Manzhou Police Station tells Taiwan News that officers pulled Harris over at 3 p.m. on Sept. 23 for public endangerment and operating a motorcycle while under the influence of alcohol.

The Pingtung District Prosecutor's Office told Taiwan News that Harris has been formally charged with committing arson (縱火罪). The Taiwan Pingtung District Court said a judge has approved Harris's release from detention, and his trial date is set for Dec. 16.

However, because he has been unable to provide his passport, he is still in custody. Harris has apparently applied for a new passport and will be released once he receives one.