Burning down your own house isn't illegal, says Youngwood arson suspect's attorney
A Youngwood man hated his house and wanted to burn it down last September, his neighbor said, but his lawyer argued that wasn't illegal because he didn't put anyone else or their property in danger.
Westmoreland County District Judge Anthony Bompiani agreed enough to dismiss two of the four arson charges against Shaun Michael Wallace at a preliminary hearing Tuesday, though two other charges will proceed to the Court of Common Pleas.
Neighbor Aaron Bair testified that he went through the South Third Street home with Wallace, 36, and fire restoration workers the afternoon of Sept. 8 after an accidental electrical fire had damaged the basement of the house about 12:40 p.m. After everyone else had left, he and Wallace stood in the kitchen drinking beers for about an hour, Bair said.
“I was telling him, ‘Everything's all right, dude, everything's fixable,' ” Bair said. “He said he hated the house and thought maybe he could get some insurance money.”
Bair testified that after Wallace left his sight, he smelled smoke and found tissues burning on the living room carpet.
He stamped out the tissues and dumped beer on them to extinguish the fire, but Wallace tried to light some more, Bair said. He said he wanted nothing to do with Wallace's actions and left for the Shop 'n Save up the street, where he would learn that the house was on fire again about 6:15 p.m. before taking off for a friend's house in Mt. Pleasant.
Defense attorney William McCabe questioned why Bair didn't contact police immediately after the second fire, and drew attention to his testimony that he walked out of the house alone when cameras from the Shop 'n Save showed him and Wallace coming out together.
State Trooper Keith Sobecki testified that the second fire appeared to have started in the living room and spread upstairs. It was unlikely that the first fire had spread from the basement to the living room and smoldered hidden for hours, he said.
In a garbage can under the kitchen sink, Sobecki found singed tissues soaked in what smelled like beer. A neighboring house suffered some damage to its gutters and siding.
Investigators quickly suspected the second fire was arson because the electricity and gas service to the house had been shut off after the first fire, Sobecki said.
McCabe argued that the last three counts of arson against Wallace should be dismissed because their language in the state code is all about setting fire to someone else's property, while everything Wallace was accused of burning was his own. He said the first count, which can include setting fire to one's own property, should be dismissed because no firefighters or neighbors were injured or endangered by the fire.
“If it's your own property, it's not illegal,” he said. “Is a firefighter placed in danger for every fire call, simply because they respond? They just fought the fire, and fighting the fire isn't enough ... unless someone is actually placed at risk of bodily injury.”
Bompiani noted that even if Wallace hadn't intended to put firefighters or neighbors at risk, he was reckless enough to do so, and ordered two of the charges held for trial.
Wallace's formal arraignment is scheduled for Jan. 3.
Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6660, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @msantoni.