Pa. fire chief’s son, firefighter charged with arson

By Eric Mark and Jacob Seibel
The Citizens' Voice

WILKES-BARRE TWP, Pa. — Police have charged a Wilkes-Barre Township volunteer firefighter with arson for allegedly setting a fire that destroyed a township home last month.

Richard Thomas Hart, 18, a member of the township fire company and son of fire Chief Richard Hart, was arraigned Friday on felony counts of burglary, arson and arson-related offenses including reckless burning.

He was sent to Luzerne County Correctional Facility in lieu of $25,000 bail.

Hart looked down and said nothing as officers led him from his arraignment at the Wilkes-Barre Township police station to a police cruiser that took him to jail.

The fire Hart is charged with setting started in the early morning hours of Dec. 21, 2015 in an unoccupied home at 115 Casey Ave., off Route 309. That home was gutted and a neighboring home was damaged.

Hart admitted during an interview on Thursday that he dropped a lit cigar into spilled gasoline inside the home, knowing that would cause a fire, according to a criminal complaint filed by Wilkes-Barre Township Detective Michael Amditis and Pennsylvania State Police Fire Marshal Ronald Jarocha.

Hart said he chased a stray cat into the home and accidentally knocked over a can of gasoline before intentionally setting the fire, which he then fought as a member of the fire company, police allege.

According to the criminal complaint:

Wilkes-Barre Township police responded to a reported structure fire in the 100 block of Casey Avenue at 3:13 a.m. on Dec. 21. An officer found the house at 115 Casey Ave. engulfed in flames. He helped a man evacuate a home at 111 Casey Ave., which had also caught fire.

Five fire companies responded and extinguished the blaze.

Jarocha responded to the scene and determined the fire had been intentionally set.

Hart was identified as a suspect during a police investigation.

He went to the township police station on Thursday and agreed to be interviewed.

He told police that he and friends were at his Francis Street home — within walking distance of the houses on Casey Avenue — late on the night of Dec. 20. The group ordered pizza, but Hart said he slipped out the back door, walked to a nearby McDonald's for an iced coffee, found the restaurant closed, then walked around the area until he saw a cat that resembled his grandmother's cat.

Hart chased the cat through a rear door of 115 Casey Ave. and entered the home, he said. He lit and smoked a cigar, and at some point accidentally kicked over a gasoline can. He then kicked the gas can a second time, took a puff of his cigar and dropped it into a pool of gas, he said.

He then walked home, ate two slices of pizza and went to sleep, he said.

He was awakened by his pager going off to alert him to a fire call, after which he responded to the scene of the fire he had started earlier, according to the criminal complaint.

Hart's arrest should not reflect poorly on the township fire company, which has faced controversy and financial problems in recent years, according to Wilkes-Barre Township Mayor Carl Kuren.

"It's just an incident that happened from a young fellow who made a mistake," Kuren said. "It should not affect the fire department."

Kuren said the elder Richard Hart assured him he plans to stay on as fire chief despite his son's arrest.

"I've already talked to him, he's not giving it up," Kuren said. "He's done a great job putting that department back together."

The elder Hart's predecessor as chief, John Yuknavich, served six months in federal prison last year after he pleaded guilty to embezzling funds from the department.

The younger Richard Hart, who turned 18 last June, has no previous criminal record as an adult in Pennsylvania, according to court records.

A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Jan. 20 before Magisterial District Judge Michael Dotzel.

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(c)2016 The Citizens' Voice (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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