A car buff losing his house and four vintage Ford Mustangs to his ex-wife apparently was carrying out a threat when he died in a house explosion as officers tried to serve him with a divorce decree, police said. James R. Wichert, 56, was killed Friday in the blast that tore apart his single-story, cinderblock home, authorities said.
No one else was in the home.
The explosion and fire were the result of arson, and investigators think Wichert carried out a threat to blow up the home, said police officer Brian Barton.
Two sheriff's deputies and Wichert's ex-wife, Karen Wichert, who accompanied the officers, were pelted with glass and other debris but escaped injury.
"It was a tremendous explosion," said Deputy Diana Greathouse. "I saw a tremendous ball of black smoke and debris flying everywhere."
Investigators found traces of an accelerant, possibly gasoline, Barton said. He said fumes may have built up, leading to the explosion.
Greathouse said she smelled fumes as she went to the door but didn't see or hear anyone inside.
She said she and Mrs. Wichert were walking around the house to see whether the smell was coming from the garage and were on the sidewalk 12 to 15 feet away when the house exploded.
Deputy Flo Bredesen was standing nearby on the sidewalk to keep an eye on the doors.
Wichert, a 22-year Navy veteran, owned four 1969 Mustangs, had a $40,000 collection of toy cars and was a member of the Gulf Coast Mustang Club.
He didn't contest the divorce or appear at any of the court proceedings.
He sometimes barricaded himself in the house when deputies tried to serve him with notices of hearings, according to court documents.
Four hours before the explosion, Circuit Judge Lacey Collier signed an order ending the marriage and giving the home, furnishings, the four Mustangs and a Ford Bronco to Mrs. Wichert.
The order gave Wichert his toy collection, another Bronco and until July 1 to move out of the home.
Collier also ordered Wichert to leave the house for the weekend so his former wife could retrieve personal belongings and some furniture.
Court documents indicated Wichert had threatened to blow up the house, kill the couple's 24-year-old daughter and commit suicide.
Mrs. Wichert said her former husband had a violent temper and had physically abused her.
Wichert knew his former wife and the deputies would be coming to serve the divorce papers because the ex-wife telephoned him and told him they were coming, said police Sgt. Jerry Potts.