Two deny guilt in arson case

Two deny guilt in arson case

3 February 2009

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USA — Two former Wallingford firefighters answered to felony charges Monday for their alleged roles in setting fire to a bus stop in town.

But four other Wallingford firefighters, who police say either knew about or were directly involved in the setting of 21 other suspicious fires in town, will not face criminal charges, according to Rutland County State’s Attorney James Mongeon.

Former volunteer firefighters Charlie Woods, Jeff Allen, George Allen, Matt Burnham, Lynn Wade and Jeremy Duchesne were charged last year in connection with brush fires and one structural fire that state fire investigators said were intentionally set.

But only Woods and Burnham were arraigned on Monday in Rutland District Court where Woods pleaded innocent to a felony charge of accessory after the fact while Burnham pleaded innocent to felony second-degree arson.

Both men were released on conditions that included they stay away from George and Jeff Allen, Wade and Duchesne and both men are prohibited under the conditions from being members of a volunteer fire department.

All six firefighters were originally cited to appear in court on July 21, 2008.

State Police Detective Sgt. Thomas Williams said recently that court proceedings were long delayed by concerns from Mongeon’s office where prosecutors wanted additional investigation and evidence before the charges were brought to court.

When State Police investigators announced the citations last year, Woods and Burnham were due to face multiple charges of arson while Jeff Allen and George Allen, the sons of former Wallingford fire chief Warren Allen, were to be charged with arson and accessory before the fact. Wade and Duchesne — who is the Wallingford Fire Chief Jeff Duchesne’s brother — were to be charged as accessories, police said.

But Mongeon said Monday only Woods and Burnham would face criminal charges. The other four firefighters will be issued civil violations that Mongeon said would be handled outside of his office.

“My focus here is on the structure,” he said, referring to the bus stop that Burnham allegedly set afire. “Clearly, that is significant.”

Mongeon said grass fires of the sort that Jeff Allen, George Allen, Wade and Duchesne allegedly had a hand in setting, covering up or encouraging are handled through a civil process that the state’s attorney said the fire investigators in the case were more familiar with.

The detectives involved in the case couldn’t be reached on Monday, but a fire investigator in the St. Johnsbury office said he wasn’t familiar with a civil process for resolving intentionally set grass fires.

State statute includes nine different offenses for arson including “setting fires” that is defined as: “A person who enters upon lands of another and sets a fire that causes damage.”

Charges of accessory before or after the fact include people who counsel, hire or procure an offense to be committed or who, after the commission of a felony, “harbors, conceals, maintains or assists an offender with the intent that he shall avoid or escape arrest or punishment.”

Potential elements of those offenses are included in a five-page affidavit written by Williams.

In the court filing, Williams writes that Woods and Burnham confessed to their roles in the burning of the bus stop on Hartsboro Road in Wallingford.

In separate interviews, Williams said the pair recounted first talking about setting the structure on fire hours before it happened on April 5, 2008. Woods told police that he drove Burnham to the bus stop but that he didn’t think Burnham would actually follow through with the plan. But when Burnham ran out of the shelter yelling, “Let’s go, let’s go, I did it, I did it,” Woods told police that he fled back to the firehouse where they climbed into Engine 1 to respond to the fire they set.

While in the firetruck, Woods said he told George Allen, who was a captain at the department at the time, what Burnham had done.

In a subsequent interview with Warren Allen, Williams said, the former chief said he was aware that there had been a number of suspicious fires in town, but the chief told police he didn’t realize that state police fire investigators delved into grass-fire cases.

The former chief also told Williams that he thought his sons, George Allen and Jeff Allen, may have been responsible for the intentional fires based on a “gut” feeling.

George Allen later told Williams that he, Burnham, Wade and Jeff Allen were responsible for about 16 brush fires in the town.

Williams said George Allen told him that Burnham sent him several text messages on his phone telling him there was going to be a fire, but not where it would be. He told Williams he had thought about telling police about Burnham, but didn’t want to be a “rat.”

Wade told police that she hadn’t set any of the fires herself. However, she said George Allen directed Burnham on the places he should set fires by making remarks such as, “That one has been done before,” or “This place is dry,” Williams wrote.

Jeff Allen, the former assistant chief at the department, told Williams he had obtained a confession from Burnham at the end of April 2008. Jeff Allen told police that Burnham said he had been setting fires around town and he named George Allen, Lynn Wade and Mellissa Burnham as witnesses to the confession.

After hearing the confession, Jeff Allen said he told Burnham he wouldn’t recommend setting more fires because people were already looking at him as the person responsible for setting other fires in town, Williams wrote.

If convicted of accessory after the fact, Woods faces a maximum penalty of seven years in jail while Burnham would face a minimum one year in jail and a maximum five-year jail sentence.

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