Trial starts for Bellefonte man accused of throwing flammable devices on courthouse roof

Dennis Hassinger sat quietly Monday as a prosecutor showed jurors how he allegedly made the flammable devices he’s accused of launching onto two Centre County buildings.

Centre County Deputy District Attorney Sean McGraw pulled out a plastic Barq’s root beer bottle to start the Bellefonte man’s trial, said Hassinger filled it with gasoline, stuffed it with newspaper wick, wrapped the concoction in a Dollar General bag, lit it and threw one onto the Centre County Courthouse and sheriff’s office in October.

The Molotovs burned through each building’s roof, but did not cause more damage.

“He hates this court system and he hates law enforcement officers,” McGraw said. “That hatred appears to be very deep in his mind.”

Hassinger, 49, has been convicted at least 10 times since 1998, McGraw said previously.

Those convictions led to his disdain for police, which manifested itself in profanity-laced tirades on Facebook that used derogatory names to describe police and accused the county government of being corrupt, McGraw said.

Flammable devices were found on the roof of the Centre County Courthouse and the sheriff’s office on the morning on Nov. 1, 2018. Abby Drey Centre Daily Times, file

When officers woke Hassinger up in November to question him about the fires, Assistant Public Defender Patrick McAreavy said “that started a nightmare for Denny Hassinger that he’s yet to wake up from.”

The video that Bellefonte police said showed Hassinger throw the Molotovs is “grainy and unclear,” McAreavy said. He also argued the investigation “targeted” Hassinger from the beginning.

Police did not test the debris from the fire to determine what started it, but did test Hassinger’s clothes. That test came back negative, McAreavy said.

When Bellefonte police Detective Bill Witmer asked Hassinger why he threw the Molotovs, Hassinger said, “I don’t know,” McGraw said.

“It’s not a straight up confession, but it’s essentially a confession,” McGraw said.

Hassinger is charged with two felony counts of arson of an unoccupied building, one felony count of arson of a historic resource — the courthouse was built in 1805 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 — and two felony count of reckless burning.

Sheriff Bryan Sampsel, one of four people who said it was Hassinger on video, and two of his deputies are among those scheduled to testify. The trial is scheduled to end Wednesday.

Bret Pallotto primarily reports on courts and crime for the Centre Daily Times. He grew up in Lewistown and graduated from Lock Haven University.