Three Pennsylvania Firefighters Suspected In Arsons

One Kidder Township firefighter was charged Tuesday night for his alleged involvement in two arson fires in the township that occurred between the end of May and the beginning of June. John Kehler, 26, of White Haven was charged by state police at Hazleton and Kidder Township police Tuesday.

He was arraigned in front of District Judge Joseph Homanko in Weatherly just after 10:30 p.m. for his alleged involvement in two fires ruled arson by state police Fire Marshal Trooper David Klitsch.

He was also charged for his alleged involvement in two attempts at setting brush fires on state game lands.

Kehler was charged with four counts of arson/endangering persons, a first-degree felony; two counts of endangering property, a second-degree felony; three counts of criminal conspiracy, a second-degree felony; two counts of reckless burning or exploding, a third-degree felony; four counts possession of explosive or incendiary materials or devices, felony three; two counts of risking a catastrophe, felony three; two counts of criminal mischief, felony three; and two counts of loitering and prowling at night time, a third-degree misdemeanor.

He was remanded to Carbon County Correctional Facility, in lieu of $100,000 straight bail.

"These charges are very serious and I don’t want to say anymore until the preliminary hearing," Homanko told Kehler during the hearing. Homanko said the preliminary hearing would be at a later date.

Klitsch said two other firefighters would be charged later this week for their alleged involvement in the fires.

In an affidavit of probable cause, Klitsch and Kidder Township police Cpl. Matthew Kuzma wrote that on or about May 21, two attempts were made to start brush fires on state Game Lands No. 40, along state Route 534.

During the attempts, Kehler and two others conspired to fill gas into a plastic container and stuffed a rag into the top of it to use as a wick, the affidavit states. Klitsch explained that the incendiary device was similar to a Molotov cocktail.

One firefighter who has not been charged yet tried to start the fire, but the fire burned itself out.

"A short time later," the firefighters again attempted and were unsuccessful, the affidavit states. On May 23 at about 12:46 a.m., a fire occurred at a vacant building on state Route 940, about two miles east of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Kidder Township. The building was owned by Louis Pugh and the building was completely destroyed.

Kehler admitted to police that he was driven to the scene by a firefighter who has yet to be charged, dropped off and then placed the container of ignited liquid on the ground next the rear of the porch and fled the scene.

He was picked up by the same firefighter and both drove to the fire station and then responded to the scene with the fire department.

Then on June 7, about 11:19 p.m., a fire occurred in a vacant three-story building commonly referred to as Bear Necessities on state Route 940 at Meckes Road, the affidavit states.

The fire required the response of fire companies from three counties. Klitsch conducted the fire investigation into the May and June blazes and determined both were intentionally set.

An investigation revealed that two other firefighters not yet charged and Kehler conspired to commit this crime while at the Kidder Township fire station.

Police said Kehler admitted to preparing two containers of ignitable liquid while still at the firehouse and said that the gas and oil mixture was taken from a red plastic fuel container that was in a compartment of a pumper truck.

Kehler then told police that the red shop rags that were placed in the containers were also taken from the firehouse.

Kehler told police that he was dropped off at the scene of the June fire.

Kehler told police that he dropped one of the two containers and could not find it, but ignited the second container with a lighter to start the fire.

Kehler was again picked up by a conspiring firefighter and went to the Hickory Run Stop on state Route 534.

Police said one of the firefighters not yet charged called Carbon County 911 to report the fire, then went to the fire station.

When police executed a search warrant Tuesday at the Kidder Township Volunteer Fire Co. on state Route 534, evidence – including shop rags, containers of ignitable liquid and a red plastic gas container from a pumper truck – were seized.

A search of the game lands was also conducted Tuesday with Klitsch, Trooper Michael Ruhf and his accelerant detection dog.

During the search, soil containing ignitable liquid and the remains of a road flare used to ignite one container of gas and a melted plastic container were found. Police said all involved admitted to talking with each other on the telephone regarding "fire setting behavior" in coded conversation in attempt to avoid detection.

Copyright Standard-Speaker Newspapers 2006.

Republished with permission of the Standard-Speaker.