Nashville Opry Owner Testifies at Arson Trial

The business manager is accused of torching the business in 2009.

Jan. 29--NASHVILLE -- The 2009 fall season loomed bright, with sold-out shows featuring stars Loretta Lynn and George Jones coming up that November.

Then an arsonist struck and the Little Nashville Opry burned down.

Owner Esther Hamilton, 88, was on the witness stand more than two hours Tuesday morning answering questions about the business she started with her late husband in 1975. "We both liked country music, and we got an idea that we'd like to have an Opry," she explained. "About anybody you can name (in country music), we had them. Dolly Parton, George Jones, Porter Wagoner."

The crux of the issue in Brown Circuit Court Tuesday: the financial state of the Opry when someone poured a flammable liquid down the center aisle and onto the stage, starting the fire the night of Sept. 19, 2009.

Hamilton, who lives in Morgantown, smiled when shown a copy of a brochure announcing the acts for the Opry's final and abbreviated season. "We had a full house coming in the weeks after the fire," she said.

She admitted that many ticketholders still have not received refunds for tickets purchased in advance of the shows. After the fire, "I sure didn't have the money," she said.

Hamilton's testimony came during the arson trial of her former business manager, 78-year-old James Bowyer, also of Morgantown. Investigators claim he set the Opry on fire as he left that Saturday night, intending for Hamilton to receive $3 million in insurance money to cover her gambling debts from playing slot machines on credit.

Hamilton said she and Bowyer were on the way to a Shelbyville casino after he closed the business for the night, and got news of the fire as they approached Franklin. "Of course, that upset me quite a bit," Hamilton said. "He turned around. We came back."

Bowyer took her home, then proceeded to the Opry, where dozens of volunteer firefighters were battling the blaze.

When Brown County Prosecutor Jim Oliver asked Hamilton if she set the fire, knew it was going to happen or conspired with anyone to burn down the music hall, she said she did not.

Hamilton had entered into an agreement in December 2008 to sell the 2,000-seat Opry and its property to the Wayman family, who own a furniture store in Martinsville. They had paid her more than $150,000 toward the purchase, Hamilton said, when the fire happened.

Hamilton said Bowyer offered to help her with the Opry after her son, Lincoln Hamilton, left the family business in 2006. She said Bowyer took no salary, saying he welcomed something to keep him busy. He did everything, from selling tickets to booking country music acts to mowing the grass. "He stepped right in. If there was anything to be done, he'd do it," she said. "Except he didn't do plumbing. He didn't know anything about it."

Fire investigators have said some of the pipes in the Opry's sprinkler system had been cut off and capped, contributing to the fast spread of the fire, which completely destroyed the structure.

Hamilton, a banker in Morgantown more than 50 years, called Bowyer one of her best friends, whom she trusted with running the business and allowed to sign checks. "He stepped right in, somebody I'd known a long time," she said. "It turned out to be a pretty good deal."

She denied having financial troubles in the Opry's final years, despite evidence that ticket sales and revenue had dropped off and the facility was falling into disrepair. "I never had any money problems," she said. "I never owed a dime on the Opry, when it burned or anything."

Hamilton said she may have told Bowyer she would "take care of him" financially when she sold the Opry, but that she made no promises. "I told him I wouldn't be paying him (to manage the business) and he said that would be all right."

Bowyer apparently had other ideas. Brown County Sheriff's Department Detective Scott Southerland told jurors he sorted through five plastic storage tubs full of papers, photographs and other items salvaged from the ashes and discovered hand-written promissory notes. Four of them, from 2005 and 2006, totaled $300,000 and designated the funds would go to Bowyer from the Opry. The first, for $100,000 and dated Feb. 8, 2005, had a notation that said, "to be paid upon selling of Opry."

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