Police seek federal help in Jeannette arsons

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For the past 18 months, Jeannette has been terrorized by what may be an unprecedented string of arsons in the city that have targeted mostly vacant buildings.

But last week, Jeannette police said someone set fire to an apartment building that four families called home, raising concerns that arsonists are now targeting people as well as property.

Even before then, Jeannette police, who have interviewed several people but have not arrested anyone, called in the help of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The bureau has lent the expertise of its arson investigators, and their involvement means that anyone arrested could face the weight of federal charges, especially if their targets were rental properties.

"They could be exposed to federal violations," said Steve Bartholomew, a spokesman for the bureau.

In all, ATF agents are investigating 18 fires that date to May 2010, although most occurred near the end of 2011 and at the beginning of this year. Mr. Bartholomew said ATF agents bring a special level of expertise to arson investigations. The agency also has special laboratories to analyze forensic evidence from fire investigation scenes.

Mr. Bartholomew said the bureau does not yet know if the fires are related.

Investigators "are treating each of these fires as separate incidents but are not ruling out a connection with each other," he said.

Jeannette Police Chief Brad Shepler said his investigation has not disclosed any discernible pattern to the crimes.

The last fire, which left four families homeless, was reported about 3:30 a.m. March 28 at 310 N. First St.

Investigators, who ruled the blaze arson, believe someone lit trash cans on the back porch. The fire burned through the rear of the building. Everyone was evacuated without injury.

It was the second arson in an occupied building. In another on Feb. 12, a fire was set in the basement of a home where two teenage boys were playing video games upstairs. They were alerted to the blaze by neighbors and got out safely.

A firefighter was injured in another fire on Feb. 3, when he was struck by flying glass from a blown-out window.

neigh_east - neigh_westmoreland

Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. First Published April 5, 2012 4:45 AM


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