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Plea bargain offered in deadly fire

| Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2004

Under terms of a plea bargain, a Fayette County man who pleaded no contest to setting the fire that killed an elderly man would begin serving a 7 1/2- to 15-year sentence while completing a prison term for burglary and sexual assault.

Richard A. Saluga, 30, was accused of torching a Fairchance apartment building in an effort to kill his wife on Sept. 14, 2003. She and 10 others escaped.

William E. Mason, a 76-year-old Point Marion man staying overnight in a neighboring apartment, died of smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning.

District Attorney Nancy Vernon said Saluga was given the chance to plead to third-degree murder because she thought prosecutors would have had trouble securing a more serious conviction.

"We didn't want to take a chance of having him walk," she added. She said the term is in line with state sentencing guidelines.

The key witness, a 14-year-old girl who had an intimate relationship with Saluga, had proven to be uncooperative during the preliminary hearing in April. At one point, Vernon had to stop the hearing and speak with the girl outside the courtroom because she was not responding to questions.

Saluga's 7 1/2- to 15-year sentence will not become official until it is imposed by a Fayette County judge.

His plea Monday marked the latest court date in a criminal record that stretches back more than a decade. He was sentenced to seven years of probation in 1994 for choking a 2-month-old in a case surrounded by suspicions of sexual assault that police were unable to prove.

Saluga has been arrested for giving liquor to minors and for carrying an unlicensed gun. Several days before the fire, police said he broke into a Fairchance home and stole a computer, two television sets and a telephone.

He is serving a 2 1/2- to five-year sentence on charges from the burglary and from his affair with the 14-year-old girl.

During the preliminary hearing on Mason's death, the girl testified that Saluga was going to "get rid of his wife for me." She had told police that she caught him plotting to burn down the 70-year-old, three-story building.

Assistant Public Defender David Kaiser said his client had been drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana on the night of the fire. Kaiser said Saluga is anxious to begin his sentence and put the incident behind him.

During a series of routine questions, Judge Gerald Solomon asked Saluga for his address. He responded that he has been in jail for more than a year. When Solomon asked where he would be living if he wasn't incarcerated, Saluga gave his wife's address in Uniontown.

First Assistant District Attorney Joseph George said the sentence would run concurrently with the time Saluga is already serving. He added that Mason's family and the police officer who investigated the fire were consulted before Monday's hearing and that neither objected to the plea bargain.

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