STAFFORD – An Oakhurst man faces several charges after police say he tried to set a restaurant on fire and damaged another building in Manahawkin Thursday.

Stafford Township Police responded about 6 a.m. to the McKinley Avenue Plaza for reports of criminal mischief to the McKinley Avenue Convenience Store and the Villagio Restaurant, according to the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office.

The preliminary investigation revealed Ernest Lathom, 39, of Oakhurst, Monmouth County, threw a park bench through the front glass door of the McKinley Avenue Convenience Store, the prosecutor’s office said. Lathom then entered the store and is accused of stealing several items, including cigars, cigarettes and lighters.

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Vellagio's Restaurant was vandalized as Lathom allegedly then threw several large rocks through the glass windows. The man entered the restaurant and allegedly attempted to use several aprons and cooking grease to set the building’s back wall on fire, according to the prosecutor’s office.

The convenience store’s surveillance video was reviewed by Stafford Township's detectives to identify Lathom as the person responsible for the damage, the prosecutor’s office said. 

The  officers spotted Lathom riding his bicycle on Route 9 near Cedar Run Apartments, where he stays occasionally, according to the prosecutor’s office.

Lathom was charged with burglary, theft and criminal mischief to the convenience store and third degree criminal mischief to the restaurant. He was taken to the Ocean County Jail and is undergoing a medical and psychological evaluation.

The Stafford Township Police Department was assisted by the following agencies: Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, Ocean County Fire Marshall, Ocean County Sheriff’s Department CSI Unit, and the Stafford Township Fire Department.
Detective Stephen Fessler of the Stafford Township Police Department's Detective Bureau is the investigating Officer.