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Trial opens in case of arson for insurance in Fayette County

| Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Fayette County businessman went on trial Wednesday on charges he promised an employee $50,000 in exchange for torching his North Union swimming-pool business.

Bret A. Shallenberger, 36, of 1218 Pittsburgh Road, North Union, is charged by state police with criminal conspiracy and criminal solicitation to commit arson.

In a criminal complaint, police said Shallenberger offered Robert Lance Bunting, 36, of Dunbar a portion of the insurance proceeds if he set a fire at his business, New Generation Pools, on Sept. 4, 2004.

Shallenberger was tried on the same charges in January 2007, but a mistrial was declared when jurors failed to reach a verdict.

Yesterday, Assistant District Attorney Jack Heneks told jurors Shallenberger asked Bunting to set the business on fire because it was failing. In addition to the pool business, the building housed Shallenberger's apartment and an ATV dealership owned by another businessman.

Heneks said the structure was a total loss, having "burned nearly to the ground."

Bunting admitted to setting the fire at Shallenberger's behest, Heneks said, when firefighters were summoned to his Connellsville apartment for a report of an odor of kerosene. Troopers who responded discovered Bunting placed his kerosene-soaked clothing into a bathtub.

Heneks said Shallenberger directed Bunting to put the blame for the fire on another man who was upset at Shallenberger for having taken a female acquaintance to a Steelers game.

Shallenberger's attorney, William Diffenderfer of Pittsburgh, told jurors Shallenberger's business was not failing financially.

He described Bunting as a substandard employee whom Shallenberger fired on more than one occasion. Bunting, according to Diffenderfer, has "an outrageous alcohol problem" and harassed customers regularly.

Diffenderfer told jurors Bunting, who is expected to testify, will place blame on Shallenberger to avoid a jail sentence on his own criminal charges.

"He has a lot to gain with his testimony," Diffenderfer said. "It's to stay out of jail."

Bunting is free on bail while awaiting trial on a single count of arson. In a criminal complaint, state police said Bunting confessed to setting the fire that destroyed Shallenberger's pool business.

Testimony is to resume today before Judge Steve Leskinen.

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