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Latrobe men admit setting apartment building fire

| Thursday, May 10, 2012, 10:10 a.m.

Latrobe police say a city man wanted to "do something wild" when he and an accomplice lit a fire Wednesday that burned down a Main Street apartment complex and left six families without homes.

James E. Harris, 19, of 436 Lloyd Ave., and Jason Smith, 21, of 124 Depot St., were arraigned Friday afternoon on arson and other charges.

According to a police criminal complaint, both Latrobe men confessed to the crime yesterday before the arraignment.

"James Harris told us he wanted to do something wild because he was turning 20," Sgt. Nunzio Santo Columbo said.

Just before 4 a.m. on Wednesday, Harris allegedly ignited a piece of cardboard that was lying between two plastic trash bins in an alley behind the building.

He and Smith allegedly stood and watched the fire burn for several minutes before running away.

A man heading to work spotted flames in the trash bin and called 911 at 4:06 a.m. When firefighters got to the scene just minutes later, the fire had spread up the back of the building.

Latrobe fire Chief John Brasile said the fire could have been fatal if it weren't for two Latrobe police officers who quickly got everyone out of the building.

For two hours, firefighters from a dozen local departments fought the blaze. By the time they got it under control, the fire had destroyed the apartment building and damaged a business next door.

Before demolition crews razed the apartment building Wednesday afternoon, a state police fire marshal investigated the scene and ruled that the blaze was intentionally set.

But Latrobe Officer John Sleasman said police had no suspects or leads.

That was until a Westmoreland Federal Savings employee who was trying to catch footage of the fire reviewed a surveillance tape and saw two males running down Main Street at 3:55 a.m.

Even though the camera caught only a brief glimpse of the men's backs, police were able to pause the tape, and an officer quickly recognized Smith's clothing and physical characteristics.

Santo Columbo said police found the suspect at home yesterday morning. Although he initially denied any involvement, Smith eventually admitted that he watched Harris light the cardboard, according to the complaint.

Sleasman arrested Harris soon thereafter.

On his way into District Justice Mark Bilik's office, Harris, wearing a "Flamehead USA" T-shirt, told reporters "Yes, I did," when asked if he set the fire.

Smith remained silent.

After arraigning the two on felony charges of arson and criminal conspiracy and a misdemeanor charge of recklessly endangering another person, Bilik set their bail at $50,000 each.

They face a July 2 preliminary hearing before Unity Township District Justice Michael Mahady.

As Harris and Smith sit in the Westmoreland County Prison, the 11 tenants of 351 Main St. are staying in local hotel rooms or living with family members while they look for new homes.

"We're helping them find long-term housing so they can start the healing process and move on with their lives," said Kristina Swank, of the Chestnut Ridge Chapter of the American Red Cross.

The families lost all of their possessions in the fire, so the Red Cross also is providing food, clothing and other basic necessities.

Swank said the chapter's disaster relief fund is depleted from a number of local fires in the past year. She said anyone willing to help the organization can make a donation by calling 724-537-3911 or send a check to: American Red Cross, 1816 Lincoln Ave., Latrobe, PA 15650.

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