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Police hope to curb arsons



Published: Sun, September 1, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Investigators do not believe the fires are related.

By LAURE CIOFFI

VINDICATOR NEW CASTLE BUREAU

NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- The Lawrence County District Attorney's office and the Pennsylvania State Police have implemented some new tools in the past few months to help detect and curb arsons.

So far this year, the number of arsons countywide has already exceeded those reported in 2001, said Trooper Eric Weller, one of three Pennsylvania State Police fire marshals at the New Castle barracks. There were 27 arsons in 2001 and 29 so far this year, with most in vacant New Castle homes, he said.

New Castle police report that there have been 12 arsons so far this year and last year there were 14 total.

"It is an alarming rate for how many seem to happen. Lawrence County has more arson fires than any other county we seem to handle," Weller said. State police fire marshals in this troop also work in Beaver, Butler and Mercer counties.

The number of arsons has not gone unnoticed by Lawrence County District Attorney Matthew Mangino, who recently formed an arson investigation team to help the fire marshal. The team includes an assistant district attorney, one county detective and five municipal police officers.

Thinking differently

The group will investigate and also help train other municipal police officers.

"When there's a fire, the first thing a police officer thinks about is there anybody in there or rerouting traffic. They don't typically think of a fire as a crime scene. We are trying to change that philosophy," he said.

The team has investigated five fires since forming a few months ago, but no arrests have been made, Mangino said.

"A lot of these fires are arsons for profit. People are trying to collect on insurance. If we can go in consistently with the fire marshal and our arson investigation team and determine it is arson, we are going to make an impact on this arson-for-profit problem," Mangino said.

He admits there may not be many arrests, but there could be fewer payouts from insurance companies, making it unprofitable to set fire to a building.

Weller agreed and said arson is one of the hardest crimes to prosecute.

"For whatever reason, people don't like to admit to starting fires. In other crimes, it's easier to get someone to admit to it. It's also very difficult in court to prove. It's getting to be a science," Weller said.

Looking for clues

State police recently brought in a Labrador retriever that detects flammable liquids to help them determine if arson was the cause of a blaze. While investigators still do all of the work, the dog helps narrow the search for arson indicators, he said.

Weller noted that there is no pattern to the recent blazes, except most are occurring in unoccupied homes. He doesn't believe they are the work of one person.

New Castle Fire Chief James Donston said arson has always been a problem in the city.

He said city code enforcement officers have helped by trying to keep abandoned homes boarded up, and Donston and the assistant fire chiefs try to be visible in neighborhoods where arson seems more prevalent.

He believes most of the fires are being set by young adults.

"I don't know what possesses them to do it, whether they enjoy seeing us bring out all of our equipment or what," he said.




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