Teen delinquent in arson at Monsour
A 17-year-old was adjudicated delinquent on Wednesday in connection with a Jeannette arson after five witnesses recanted their statements to investigators implicating the teen.
Judge Michele Bononi isn't buying the change in stories.
“You may pull the wool over somebody else's eyes, but you knew you weren't supposed to be there,” she told the juvenile after finding him delinquent on felony charges of risking a catastrophe, criminal trespass and two counts of arson.
The teen remains held at Westmoreland County Juvenile Detention Center pending a disposition hearing, when the judge will decide a punishment. He was arrested in September at the same time as five adults in connection with multiple arsons, which have plagued the city since 2008.
Those arrested are responsible for nine of 20 fires, according to police. The juvenile was charged with arson in a fire that erupted at 6:08 a.m. July 9, 2011, on the fifth floor of Monsour Medical Center along Route 30.
Attorneys for both sides stipulated that the fire intentionally was set on the fifth floor of the defunct hospital, which was posted with no-trespassing signs.
Five witnesses testified that a group, including the 17-year-old, entered the abandoned building armed with food, alcohol and sheets. The group set up a room on the eighth floor, lit some candles and then went exploring, they testified.
At that point, the group's testimony diverges from statements made to an agent of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which was helping Jeannette police investigate.
A Jeannette girl living on North Fourth Street testified Wednesday that she told the ATF agent on May 9 that she saw the 17-year-old light a piece of cardboard or a sheet while they were at the hospital.
“I did because (the agent) had told me that I was lying,” the Jeannette girl said through tears. “He told me that (the juvenile) had already confessed. I didn't know what else to do.”
She, as well as two other witnesses testifying yesterday, recanted their statements to city police Chief Brad Shepler on Sept. 25. They said the statements were false and that the juvenile did not start the fire.
“I was scared because I knew that what I told the first time wasn't true,” the Jeannette girl testified.
A former Division Street resident testified that he told the ATF agent on May 10 that the juvenile kicked a dresser at the hospital, which knocked over a candle and started a fire.
He changed his story for Shepler on the day he received a summons to appear as a commonwealth witness at the adjudication hearing Wednesday. The adjudication hearing was scheduled for Sept. 26 but was continued to Wednesday.
“I felt bad because (the juvenile) was getting put away for something he didn't do,” the current Penn Hills resident testified. “I didn't know I had to testify in court against him.”
ATF Special Agent Jason Wick testified that the juvenile implicated the former Division Street resident and drew a diagram of the room.
The juvenile testified that during his interview with Wick, he repeatedly denied involvement in the fire and did the same during his hearing.
“(Wick) was saying we have five witnesses saying that you did — just tell us what you did,” the juvenile testified. “I felt pressured.”
He and attorney Patricia Elliott alluded to prior dealings with the juvenile court system. The juvenile previously was placed at Inside Out, a rehabilitative program for youth in Bolivar. He testified that he is enrolled as a culinary-arts student at Westmoreland County Community College and was working as a prep cook at The Supper Club in Greensburg before his arrest.
Elliott argued that the case is “rife with credibility issues.”
“We have five very different versions of events from five individuals,” she said in closing arguments. “I think we had an over-zealous agent” and juveniles “who all stated that they felt pressured.”
Assistant District Attorney Leo Ciaramitaro called it “convenient” that the witnesses changed their statements after receiving summons to appear in court. “The court has heard from a number of recanting and reluctant witnesses,” he argued.
“I'm not that dumb,” she said to the juvenile. “You knew what was right and you knew what was wrong.”
Preliminary hearings are scheduled Friday for the five adults also arrested in connection with nine of 20 arsons in the city between Aug. 29, 2008 and March 28, 2012.
The suspects are:
• Richard Allen Adair Jr., 28, of Jeannette;
• Jeffrey Robert Tierney Jr., 24, of Jeannette;
• Roger William Adair, 27, of Jeannette;
• John Raymond Horne, 21, of Jeannette;
• Christopher Allen Jones, 22, of Irwin.
The five are charged with arson, criminal conspiracy, criminal trespass and risking a catastrophe. Roger Adair and Horne also are charged with aggravated assault because a firefighter was injured while battling a fire Feb. 3 on Chestnut Street.
Relatives and friends of some of the accused, and even one of the defendants, have denied involvement.
Renatta Signorini is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-837-5374 or email@example.com.