Crime

Arson charges against Centre, Clearfield firefighters

Clockwise from top left: Samuel Connor, Hunter Harris, Kenneth Moore and Justin Varner were each charged with arson. They are all volunteer firefighters from Centre and Clearfield counties.
Clockwise from top left: Samuel Connor, Hunter Harris, Kenneth Moore and Justin Varner were each charged with arson. They are all volunteer firefighters from Centre and Clearfield counties.

Four firefighters from Centre and Clearfield counties face arson charges from two separate fires.

State police Fire Marshal Cpl. Greg Agosti said in a release that the fires were not connected.

The first fire was allegedly started by Columbia Fire Company volunteer Justin Varner, 23, of Osceola Mills. Police said he started a fire at 12:30 a.m. Sept. 30 at an unoccupied building at 500 Lingle St. in the borough and also said he confessed to setting it.

According to the criminal complaint, Varner said he was walking home from the Columbia Fire Company the evening of the fire and thought it had been a while since there was a fire call. He also said he thought the Hertlein building was an “eyesore in the community.”

He entered the building through an unsecured door, the complaint said, and lit a pile of cardboard on fire. He later returned to the scene to combat the fire with the company when they responded.

The second fire, police say, was caused by Hope Fire Company volunteers Hunter Harris, 21, of Philipsburg, Kenneth Lee Moore, 20, of Lanse, and Samuel Conner, 19, of Howard. Police said the three men also confessed to starting a fire, this one at 4 a.m. Oct. 9 at 309 Ida St., Chester Hill in Clearfield County. The building was unoccupied.

According to the criminal complaint, Harris, Moore and Conner explained they were at the Hope Fire Company in the early morning hours of Oct. 9 when they collectively discussed setting fire to the vacant house on Ida Street so they could respond with the company and extinguish the fire.

They gathered some hay and paper products to create a “fuel package,” the complaint said, before driving to the area. When they arrived, Harris and Conner placed the package inside of a wood-framed shed attached to the rear of the house before igniting it.

The three returned to the station to await the dispatch, which came 15 minutes later, the complaint said.

Police say the Columbia and Hope fire companies cooperated during the separate investigations.

Harris, Moore and Conner were arraigned on arson charges and released on $50,000 unsecured bail Thursday. Varner, incarcerated in Clearfield County Jail for a probation violation, was arraigned by video conference the same day with bail set at $25,000 secured.

Harris, Moore and Conner were removed as members of Hope Fire Company when it learned of the men’s individual statements to police, said Hope Fire Company No. 2 public information officer Justin Butterworth.

We sincerely regret the mistrust in the fire company that this incident will bring to the public, and we assure you the actions of a few in no way define the organization.

Justin Butterworth, Hope Fire Company No. 2 public information officer

He said the company will review background check procedures, implement new policies and provide educational programming to current and incoming members.

Varner was removed as a member of Columbia Fire Company when it learned about the police investigation, according to a company statement.

“It is the hopes of the fire company that the public continues to offer their overwhelming support as they have in the past,” the Columbia Fire Company statement said. “This one incident may cast doubt and mistrust in the minds of some, but Columbia is determined to push forward (and) continue to offer the best fire and rescue services to the citizens they protect.”

Clearfield County District Attorney William Shaw Jr. said in a news release that he was disappointed in the young men for starting the fires, noting that the area relies on volunteer firefighters and the business of fighting fires is extremely dangerous.

“The actions of these individuals placed the lives of our volunteers in danger and will not be tolerated,” he said in the release.

Shaw thanked the firefighters and emergency personnel who responded to the fires for their courage and dedication to the community.

Shawn Annarelli: 814-235-3928, @Shawn_Annarelli

Jeremy Hartley: 814-231-4616, @JJHartleyNews

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