Jeannette, New Castle frequent targets of arsonists

Renatta Signorini
| Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012, 7:30 p.m.

New Castle and Jeannette each bear scars inflicted by serial arsonists — abandoned factories with broken windows and empty houses with scorch marks.

It is a common concern in once-vibrant manufacturing cities in Western Pennsylvania.

Glassport Mayor Michael Evanovich has issued a public plea for citizens to come forward if they know anything about a series of suspicious fires set on Dec. 3 and 4, when someone torched a vacant church and garages in the borough.

“I'm hopeful that we don't have a problem, because Glassport is an older town,” Evanovich said. “We have our share of vacant houses.”

In Jeannette this year and in New Castle in 2009, city officials turned to federal investigators to end the arsons. The ATF assisted Jeannette police in the arrests of six suspects in September, as they had done in New Castle in 2009.

But trouble rekindled this year in New Castle, where a series of arsons erupted in April and a blaze in an abandoned bar almost killed one fireman. There have been no arrests.

“Anytime we leave the building, we're concerned,” fire Chief Tom Maciarello said. “It's a sorry situation.”

The Fire Administration estimates that 14 percent of arsons occur in blighted areas, generally defined as communities spoiled by abandoned buildings. Every year, about 6,000 firefighters are hurt while quelling blazes in abandoned buildings.

“It's almost like an abandoned house is honey to a bee,” said Curt Watkins, a senior evaluator for the Center for Arson Research in Philadelphia. “The problem I have with these groups is they make a bad situation worse.”

Arsonists torched at least 12 buildings this year in New Castle. Several other fires are suspicious, Maciarello said. A Nov. 3 blaze was set at an occupied home; two firemen wrenched their knees while battling arson fires this year.

“My concern is that when the police respond and when the fire department responds, they put themselves in harm's way,” Mayor Anthony Mastrangelo said. “These are not necessary fires. (They are set) just as a prank — that really kinda sets you off a little bit.”

Maciarello can point to an indent in a strip of grass as the exact spot where he almost lost Lt. John Onufrak, who was trapped when the upper floors of a former East Washington Street bar collapsed during a fire on July 22. His comrades saved him.

“I was just trying to make myself small” as debris rained down, said Onufrak, who was uninjured. “I just felt pushed toward the door.”

In Jeannette, a shard of glass sliced the neck of firefighter James Swartz when a window shattered at a burning home on Chestnut Street. The Feb. 3 fire was intentionally set.

Jeannette police arrested five men and one juvenile for nine of 20 arsons between Aug. 29, 2008 and March 28, 2012.

New Castle police charged four men, a woman and two juveniles in October 2009 for 12 of 56 arson fires over 18 months, Maciarello said.

Charges against three New Castle suspects were dropped in 2011. Two were sentenced. Lawrence County prosecutors overseeing the cases did not return calls seeking comment on the dismissed cases and the end result in the juvenile court cases.

ATF Special Agent Jason Wick, who helped in the Jeannette and New Castle investigations, said he was unaware of charges being dismissed in the 2009 cases.

“We were waiting to get called” to testify, he said. “We have no idea what happened.”

Wick and Trooper Jake Andolina, a state police fire marshal, said dead ends are frequent and frustrating.

“Fires by their very nature burn up the evidence,” Andolina said. “Calling it arson's the easy part. Proving who did it is the hard part.”

“You need eyewitnesses and statements to prove an arson,” said Jeannette Police Chief Brad Shepler.

Only 18.8 percent of arson offenses were cleared in 2011, according to the FBI. Almost one-third of those cases involved juveniles.

Arsons are twice as likely to be set in urban communities as in suburban and rural communities, according to FBI statistics.

Arsonists are typically male loners who are unemployed or working in menial jobs, Watkins said. Motivations run the gamut from boredom to alcohol or drug use. Arsonists usually work alone, at night, and can act impulsively.

They frequently target abandoned buildings, Andolina said. “Even though it's a vacant building and may be a junk building, it still puts many people's lives in danger,” Andolina said.

Psychologist Joel Dvoskin said it is difficult to profile an arsonist because of the low arrest rate. “All we know about arsonists is based on the people who have been caught,” said Dvoskin, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona. “Anybody who claims to be able to profile an arsonist is full of baloney.”

Investigators allege three male teens — two in New Castle and one in Jeannette — were involved with the arsons. The 17-year-old from Jeannette, accused of setting a fire in the defunct Monsour Medical Center, was ordered to a “firesetter rehabilitation program” at Abraxas Youth & Family Services, based in Lehigh County.

Juveniles with a propensity for firesetting don't outgrow it, said Jennifer Barnhart, the program's clinical director. “They've used fire for so long to deal with emotions.”

About 150 participants — males ages 12-18 adjudicated delinquent on a fire charge — have completed the 52-week program that emphasizes coping skills and impulse control. “A lot of these guys come in really aggressive, really angry; they don't have a lot of emotional intelligence,” Barnhart said.

Abandoned buildings can become havens for those kinds of criminals, according to Jeannette Mayor Robert Carter. In his city, some are owned by absentee landlords, many of whom believe it is easier to pay fines than renovate, he said.

New Castle has demolished a few buildings damaged by arsonists, including the former East Washington Street bar.

Anthony Cioffi, code enforcement foreman, said the city now requires owners to register vacant buildings — at a cost of $250 to $5,000.

“It would help us track the vacant homes and we like to think it would make the owner put some money in it or sell it,” he said.

Evanovich said he hopes Glassport will not be plagued by serial arsonists.

“I don't want it to turn into anything” like New Castle and Jeannette's troubles, Evanovich said. “I hope we don't get into that situation.”

Renatta Signorini is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-837-5374 or Staff writer Richard Gazarik contributed.

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