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South Side residents speak out on arson fires

| Friday, Oct. 29, 2004

At least 60 concerned residents attended a meeting at South Side Elementary School in Connellsville Thursday night to see if there was something they could do to protect themselves from the year long scare of arsons in the city.

"The main reason we're here is to share a little bit of information as to how we can best protect ourselves," said Mayor Judy Reed who addressed the crowd along with Sgt. Ronald Haggerty, the investigating officer of the arsons; Sgt. Vinny Traynor, the city's fire marshall; Connellsville Police Chief Steve Cooper, Connellsville Fire Department Chief Joe Childs and Pennsylvania State Police Public Information Officer, Brian Burden.

"It's a sad time when we have to have meetings such as this," she added. "We have to look out for our friends, family and our property."

She added that everything that can be done at this point is being done.

"It's only a matter of time, but until that time, we have to be very careful and very smart," said Reed.

Although Cooper did not want to reveal any specifics dealing with the 20 arsons during the past year, he did read off a list of the date, time, day of the week and address of all the fires that have taken place.

Traynor gave some tips to the residents on how to better protect themselves from being targeted.

From keeping porches clean and free of any furniture or debris and getting rid of any leaves that can be found around a house to keeping dusk to dawn lights on and making sure every floor has smoke detectors, the tips were all ones that were told to residents before.

Another idea that some residents have already done was to place smoke detectors outside on both their front and back porches.

Haggerty asked that anyone who might have any tips concerning the arsons, call the police, the ATF or crime stoppers.

"If you see something, report it," said Haggerty. "It may seem like something stupid to you, but it might be important to us."

"That's what's going to help us solve this case," he added. "That's going to be the kind of break we need."

Burden attended the meeting to discuss the neighborhood watch program.

"This program is to help get the community actively involved with the police department in solving crimes," said Burden. "You know who your neighbor is. You know who's supposed to be there and who isn't.

"This program is set up for you to talk with the police department," he added. "You're working with them to improve your quality of life."

According to Burden, the police cannot be everyone at once.

"You guys live here," said Burden. "If you see something that's not right, then write down what you see and then make the call."

According to Cooper, some of the things that might be useful pieces of information include the description of a person, a vehicle or a sound.

"Was it a four door blue Chevy, was it a black or a white male driving, was there a female with him," said Cooper. "Was the car damaged• Did the person wear glasses or have a hat on, did you hear a car door slam or a neighbor's gate open that you know is the neighbor's because it has a certain squeak, or was a dog barking that doesn't normally bark• Did you hear glass breaking or a popping sound?

"Maybe a cat just knocked over a glass bottle, but we'd rather go to 100 of those calls than to miss the one that could help us catch the person or persons responsible for the arsons," said Cooper.

Bob Shandorf, a resident of Race Street was concerned with the city putting a police officer in the school and also with the police department having discussions on partnering with Connellsville Township.

"The citizens of Connellsville need more patrolmen on the streets," said Shandorf.

Reed pointed out that putting a police officer in the schools will be a benefit to the children, but also, the city received a $125,000 grant for that reason.

"The good part is that in the summertime, when school is out of session, the officer will be back with the force," said Reed.

She also added that although partnering with the township has been discussed, no decisions have been made.

Resident Allison Heinbaugh, informed those in attendance that when she tried to use her cell phone to report the latest fire on Sycamore Street, she was bounced around three or four times before finally reporting the incident.

"If you do see anything, don't call from you cell phone; call from home," said Heinbaugh.

Vernon Schroyer, a neighbor of the latest fire, was worried that it took the fire department so long to respond.

"It took 20 minutes for the fire department to get there and we were fighting it with a tiny garden hose," said Schroyer.

Childs said that there was no way it took 20 minutes and offered to get the 911 report, which documents the time the call came in, the time of arrival and the time of departure.

Other residents wanted to know why South Connellsville Volunteer Fire Department was not dispatched when it is much closer than New Haven Hose to those residences on the South Side.

"It just doesn't make sense to have a closer department on standby," said resident Karen Ghrist.

Shandorf requested the city to provide some additional arc lights to brighten up the dark alleys.

One resident questioned why most of the arsons were on the South Side.

"It's a very target-rich environment," said Cooper. "It's all residential, the houses are close together and it's a little bit darker."

"People can sneak between buildings and go unnoticed," added Reed.

Fayette County Crime Stoppers and the ATF are offering a combined reward of up to $9,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or people who are responsible for the arsons. Call 1-877-834-TIPS. Callers remain anonymous, or call the ATF at 1-888-ATF-FIRE. The number for the Connellsville police department is 724-628-2020, ext. 110.

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