16 News Now Investigates: Behind the Barn Arsons

Published: Dec. 10, 2021 at 6:29 PM EST
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ELKHART COUNTY, Ind. (WNDU) - Two people are pleading not guilty after being accused of setting eight barns ablaze in Elkhart County.

As their criminal proceedings are just getting started, the community is still recovering, and reacting, with a lot to process since this all began in the spring.

A mixture of shock and relief from the community, as two people are now charged in connection to barn burnings that date back as far back as April.

Joseph Hershberger, 41, and his girlfriend, 32-year-old Sherry Thomas were arrested on arson charges... bringing to end a nearly 8-month period of constant worry for the farming community.

First responders whose communities were impacted by the arsons are happy, taking to social media to express their gratitude for the arrests.

But amid the jubilation comes the aftermath, as those whose barns were burned down continue to pick up the pieces.

For Debbie Schmidt, the clean-up means acknowledging the loss of not just material things, but cherished family memories.

They pulled my dad’s tractor out, he had this little Oliver, and all I can do is see my dad on that. And they pulled that out with their crane and they set it over to the side until I can say I’m ready to let go,” explains Schmidt.

The damages from the fire that burned down Gary Eby’s barn are estimated at over 150-thousand dollars… but he’s grateful to still have his home after the flames came dangerously close.

“The roof of the house was all covered in embers. If we wouldn’t have had a brick house with a metal roof, we probably wouldn’t have a house,” says Eby.

Like Debbie, he lost things that just can’t be replaced.

“There was a pony wagon that my dad had when he was a kid and they took a buggy and cut it down and made a pony wagon. It’s gone. There’s no amount of money that can replace it ‘cause it was my dad’s.”

Garry Weybright lost a barn and two silos, along with hundreds of items that were inside when the arsonists struck his farm on October 1st.

“We lost a lot of material things but probably the thing that hurts the worst is the memories,” says Weybright. “My father and grandfather, and all the people,. all the hired hands, all who have come in over the years to take care of the farm.”

And as these families continue to process everything that’s happened… everyone keeps coming back to the same question… Why?

“I’d like to have him tell me why he burnt it. Period,” says Eby.

While we don’t fully know what the motive was, we do know that Hershberger’s history with fires dates back decades.

He served as a volunteer trainee for the Syracuse Fire Department in 2001. He resigned a year later, but current Fire Chief Mickey Scott did not say why.

Then in 2006, Hershberger was accused of setting fire to a brand new manufactured home while it was sitting on a sales lot in Goshen.

He was initially charged with arson, but ended up pleading guilty to felony criminal mischief. He was sentenced to three years of probation, which he would go on to violate several times before completing the sentence in 2011.

Now, described on his charging documents as a danger to the community, Hershberger has involved his partner in his alleged criminal activity.

Sherry Thomas told police she was there when Hershberger set fire to barns on April 13, July 28, and October 1, but he says they took turns pouring the gas and watching them burn.

But they weren’t the only ones at the final fires on October 1. Thomas tells police that her 11-year-old son was there, and that Hershberger tried to convince him to take part in the arson.

“There’s so many lives ruined over this. I don’t even know what would make you think this was something to do,” says Schmidt. “There is a price to pay when you commit a crime like that. There is a price to pay. They have to figure out where their lives are going to go from here.”

Both Joseph Hershberger and Sherry Thomas face a maximum sentence of 112 years if found guilty on all charges.

Thomas is currently on probation, with a bond hearing planned for next month.

Hershberger is being held without bond because of restitution and court fees he still owes on two previous felony charges.

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