Six firefighters charged in arsons

     Six firefighters charged in arsons

22 May 2008

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Rutland, VT, USA — Fire Chief Warren Allen has resigned and six of his firefighters — including his sons, who are officers in the department — are facing arson and related charges for allegedly setting fires around town, Vermont State Police said Wednesday.

Police said they believed the six firefighters were responsible for between 18 and 23 suspicious fires this spring or had direct knowledge at the time the fires were set. Police said the charges were a mix of felonies and misdemeanors.

Police listed the accused as Charlie Woods, 17, First Assistant Chief Jeff Allen, 24, Capt. George Allen, 24, Matt Burnham, 19, Lynn Wade, 17, and Jeremy Duchesne, 22, and said each was a member of the Wallingford Volunteer Fire Department at the time of the incidents.

The fire department is overseen by the Wallingford Fire District No. 1 Prudential Committee. Chairman Chris Rabtoy said the committee held an emergency meeting Wednesday evening at which it voted to suspend the six pending the outcome of their court cases.

“They’ve been barred from the fire department property,” he said.

Rabtoy said Chief Allen resigned from the department at the meeting and the committee followed the chain of command to appoint Second Assistant Chief Jeff Duchesne — Jeremy Duchesne’s brother — as acting chief.

The resignation and suspensions take the department from 32 active members to 25. Rabtoy said that while the change will require some adjustments, he does not expect the drop in manpower to affect the functioning of the department.

“It’s not a good situation for the town,” he said. “These were some individuals who made some stupid choices. It’s not an accurate reflection on the rest of the fire department.” Rabtoy also pointed out that the six are innocent until proven guilty.

Woods and Burnham will face multiple charges of arson, police said, while Jeff Allen and George Allen are charged with arson and accessory before the fact. Wade and Duchesne were charged as accessories, police said. All six were cited to appear in Rutland District Court on July 21, according to police.

Lt. Joel Mudge, the department’s safety officer, said the department was going to need all the help it could get, and the situation dealt a powerful emotional blow.

“I saw both of those Allen boys grow up,” he said. “I’m sick about it, literally. It’s just heart-wrenching, really.”

Detective Sgt. James Cruise, a fire investigator for the Vermont State Police, said a seventh firefighter was aware of the arson after the fact and may not be charged. As some of the fires were on U.S. Forest Service land, Cruise said the suspects may also face federal charges.

Cruise said the group appeared to have started the fires in order to respond to the calls and put them out.

“They like the excitement of it,” he said, pointing out the youthful age of the suspects.

Cruise said the majority of the fires were brush fires, and police listed locations including the access to Elfin Lake, the Church Street Cemetery, the Long Trail access and another spot on Route 140, Ice Bed Road, the Hartsboro fishing access, Dugway Road and several sand pits.

One structure fire is attributed to the suspects, police said — the school bus shelter on Hartsboro Road.

“The damage was minimal but the danger to the community was a concern,” Cruise said.

Chief Warren Allen did not return calls seeking comment. Cruise identified George Allen and Jeff Allen as his sons.

“People kind of knew something was up,” said David Gilman, the town fire warden. “We were up to 20 fires and none were reported through the chain of command like they’re supposed to be.”

Gilman said that as fire warden, he is supposed to be notified of brush or grass fires and that he then takes command of the incident, calling on the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation forest resources protection officer if there are not enough assets on-scene to fight the fire.

“It is the duty of the chief to call me,” he said.

That did not happen, Gilman said, with the fires in question. In fact, Gilman said he was unaware of a number of the fires before the police investigation.

Rabtoy said he was unfamiliar with the reporting issue.

“I don’t know all of the nitty-gritty details,” he said. “I’d like more information as well.”

Police said they began looking into a number of suspicious brush fires and requested the fire response sheets on the incidents from Chief Allen. Federal investigators became involved when some of the fires were identified as being on Forest Service land, police said, and detectives questioned several firefighters.

“There was a rumor going around town for a few weeks,” Select Board Chairman William Lohsen said. “This is the first I’ve heard of it being confirmed.”

Lohsen said many people had commented on the number of brush fires around town this spring. April was largely a dry month, and the National Weather Service issued at least one red flag warning on brush fire danger for most of the state.

Cruise said he could not go into too much detail because the investigation was ongoing. Police said additional charges may follow, including reckless endangerment.

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