A Clearfield man pleaded guilty Tuesday in Clearfield County Court to arson charges for an April fire in his Clearfield borough apartment.
Heath Oliver Austin, 41, was sentenced to 22 months to 18 years in state prison for five felony counts of arson-danger of death or bodily injury, and was ordered to pay more than $76,000 in restitution.
The fire started just after 6 a.m. on April 3 in Austin’s apartment building, which contained six apartments and an office.
The owner of the building told Judge Fredric J. Ammerman in court Tuesday morning that it was “evident early on” in the investigation that the fire was set. That morning, Austin, an occupant of the building, was nowhere to be found and when he was located, he had items such as his iPad with him, she said.
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Later when the apartment was checked, it was discovered he had emptied every drawer. He then filed a $35,000 insurance claim for his belongings, she said.
Ammerman noted that the other people who lived in the building could have died, and the owner agreed. She stated that the fire did not spread only because of the way the building was insulated.
She told the judge she did not think the 22-month minimum sentence in the plea agreement was enough.
The plea was for only 22 months because Austin does not have much of a prior record, District Attorney William A. Shaw said. But, the agreement allowed the judge to set the maximum sentence, and it is likely Austin will serve a majority of that time.
According to the affidavit of probable cause, when police arrived on the scene at the East Pine Street apartment, several neighbors told them a deaf man lived in the burning apartment and he was possibly still inside. Because the apartment door was locked, the officers had to force entry. The apartment was filled with smoke but no one was inside.
Once the fire was extinguished, the firefighters asked for assistance from a state police fire marshal to determine the cause of the fire.
After an investigation, the fire marshal reported that the fire had been intentionally set by a direct flame making contact with the clothing in a laundry basket in a bedroom. A search of the residence found that there were no clothing items in any of the dressers, bed drawers or cabinet, according to police.
On April 25, police officers and a certified deaf interpreter, met with Austin to conduct a polygraph examination. During this time, Austin allegedly admitted to one officer that he was having a hard time financially and that he started the blaze by lighting a shirt in the laundry basket on fire.