Ex-Chief Convicted in Firehouse Blazes

A fire chief at a volunteer department founded by his grandfather was convicted of mail fraud for misleading investigators about blazes that destroyed the department's social hall.

PITTSBURGH -- An Isabella fire chief charged with taking part in a scheme to burn down the department's social hall and defraud an insurance company for $500,000 was found guilty in U.S. District Court Wednesday.

Steven Dugan, 26, whose great-grandfather founded the Isabella Fire Department in 1936, was found guilty of mail fraud related to two 2002 arsons that destroyed the department's century-old social hall and for aiding and abetting what federal prosecutors say was a scheme to collect insurance money.

According to prosecutors, Dugan was found guilty of not telling insurance investigators that Isabella firefighters could have started the blaze because he didn't want to ruin the department's chances of replacing the building with insurance money.

Tom Baker, former assistant fire chief, and Jerry E. Booker II, former vice president, both pleaded guilty last week to setting the fires that destroyed the social hall. Booker admitted to starting the fire, and Baker said that he told him to do it.

Following the trial, U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan said she expected a guilty verdict.

"I felt strongly that the charges were appropriate in light of the defendants," she said.

Dugan's attorney, Michael Farrell, said he was "disappointed" and "saddened" by the verdict.

In his closing statements, Farrell said that the prosecution needed the testimony of Edith Grow to prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" that Steve Dugan knew that Isabella firefighters started the blaze and lied about it to insurance investigators before Sept. 5, 2002, when an affidavit of loss was mailed to the insurance company.

Grow, of Brownsville, testified Tuesday that on two occasions, once at Baker's house and once at the home of his mother, Connie Baker, both James and Steven Dugan participated in conversations with Tom Baker, who said they should burn down the social hall.

Grow said Baker at one time said the fire hall should be burned because it was too small and another time said they should do it because fellow firefighters were giving James Dugan a hard time.

Grow also said she was with Baker at least 15 times when he started brush fires.

Steven's father, James Dugan II, former 30-year fire chief, testified, however, that he never participated or entertained such conversations.

"I would never do nothing like that," he said.

James Dugan went on to say that he was never at Connie Baker's house with his son while Grow was there.

Connie Baker also testified that James and Steven Dugan were never in her home at the same time and was not there on Easter 2001 as Grow testified. She also said that she never heard any conversation between the men about burning down the social hall.

Farrell also called witness to refute claims that Baker and Dugan said the social hall was too small and that Baker repeatedly said, with Dugan's knowledge, that the social hall was badly in need of repair and should be replaced.

Elizabeth Cole, the department's financial secretary, and Regina Booker, treasurer, both testified that the social hall could and did comfortably hold up to 500 people. It had been said a number of times during testimony that Isabella has 200 residents.

The two women also testified that the damage to the department was minor, including a damaged chimney in the bar area that had caused water damage to the wall and surrounding tile flooring.

Regina Booker testified that the department had more than $9,000 in one of three bank accounts and accepted a $5,000 bid for the needed repairs.

Farrell also argued that had Steven Dugan and Tom Baker talked about burning the social hall in 2001, they would not have had enough money to replace the building valued at $703,287 because they were underinsured at that time.

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