Another Firefighter Pleads Guilty in Connection with Isabella Arson

Another Isabella Volunteer Fire Department member, charged after an investigation into an arson that destroyed the department's social hall in 2002, has pleaded guilty in federal court.

Thomas Baker, the former assistant fire chief, pleaded guilty Wednesday before Senior U.S. Judge Gustave Diamond to charges of mail fraud and aiding and abetting the arson of the department social hall on June 26, the first of two fires allegedly started in an attempt to recoup insurance money from the blaze to construct a new hall.

According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Shaun Sweeney, Baker faced the "aiding and abetting" charges for telling Jerry E. Booker II to set the fire.

On Tuesday, Booker, the former vice president, pleaded guilty before the same judge to charges of mail fraud and a federal arson charge.

Authorities have also charged Steven Dugan, former fire chief, and William Robison, a former trustee of the department, in connection with the arson. The two men face mail fraud charges for filing a false claim with Selective Insurance Co. of New Jersey, according to authorities.

The department increased its insurance coverage to $500,000 about six months before the fires, according to the fire department's attorney Philip Fabiano.

Dugan's trial is scheduled before Diamond on Jan. 12 at 9:30 a.m.

Robison's trial is scheduled before Diamond on Jan. 21 at 9:30 a.m.

Robison, during a hearing on pretrial motions filed by defendants earlier this month, was severed out of the trial of his co-defendants because of statements he made after he was arrested that implicated himself and his co-defendants in the alleged arson and fraud because his comments would "prejudice their trial," Sweeney said.

Sweeney said the jury selection for the trial begins today.

All four men were charged in March 2002 with federal criminal violations in connection with two fires, June 26 and 30, that destroyed the department's social hall and for perpetrating a scheme to defraud the insurance provider. Booker was charged with the actual setting of the blaze.

According to the affidavit, Booker concocted an alibi for the June 30 fire, which included digital photographs stored on his computer, which were time-stamped for June 30 at 4:44 a.m.

Authorities said an informant told them Booker planned to say the photos showed him and friends on an outing in some Pennsylvania state game lands at the time of the fire. However, the photos were taken just outside the fire hall.

Federal authorities searching for those photos charged Booker with possession of child pornography when they allegedly found "graphic" child-sex images stored on his seized computer. Booker is awaiting trial on those charges.

The Luzerne Township Supervisors, in response to the charges against the fire department officials, issued an ultimatum to the department in April that called for the suspension of the four officers charged in connection with the arson or the suspension of the entire department.

In May, after some hesitation, the department complied with the ultimatum and named Dugan's father, James, a former chief of 30 years, as temporary chief and Booker's father, Jerry, as a temporary vice president.

The two fires destroyed the three-story, 100-year-old building, eliminating a bar, dance hall, kitchen and auxiliary room, a five-room apartment and a 1937 International pumper, which was the department's first fire truck.