Pennsylvania Firefighter Pleads Guilty to Charges Stemming From Arson Fire At Department Social Hall

Jerry E. Booker II, 21, of 553 Palmer Adah Road, Adah, pleaded guilty Tuesday before Senior U.S. Judge Gustave Diamond to charges of mail fraud and malicious destruction of property by fire.

Booker, suspended vice president of the fire company, is accused of setting the social hall on fire in an attempt to recoup insurance money from the blaze to construct a new hall. Authorities have accused Fire Chief Steven Dugan, Assistant Chief Thomas Baker and trustee William Robinson, all currently suspended from the department, of aiding Booker in his attempt.

After the four men were charged with arson in March 2003, Booker and Baker were charged with mail fraud for allegedly filing false insurance claims to Selective Insurance Co. for the burned social hall.

According to U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, the men were perpetrating a scheme to defraud the insurance provider, and the original indictment alleged that the men fraudulently attempted to recuperate insurance proceeds for two fires that were set at the social hall June 26 and June 30, 2002. Authorities charged only Booker with the actual setting of the blazes.

The two fires destroyed 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.

After livid area residents expressed their disbelief with the fire department's alleged involvement with the blaze, the Luzerne Township supervisors issued an ultimatum to the department in April that called for the suspension of the four officers charged in the fire, or the suspension of the entire department.

And 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.

Buchanan said Tuesday that the case never could have been completed without the persistent work of the agents investigating the blaze.

"This case is an excellent example of the outstanding investigative work done by the Pittsburgh agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Booker's sentencing is scheduled for April 15 at 10 a.m., Buchanan said.

The law provides for a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison, with a maximum of 40 years and a $500,000 fine.