Firefighter Faces Charges: Cattle, Barn Lost in Fire

A firefighter home on leave from the Air Force has been charged with setting a fire that killed 177 head of cattle on a farm in Pleasant Valley, authorities said Wednesday.

Dutchess County sheriff's deputies said 23-year-old Charles E. Miller III allegedly set the fire at the David Melville farm on Melville Road early Monday morning, then called in the alarm and helped his fellow Pleasant Valley firefighters battle it.

Miller was charged with third-degree arson and criminal mischief, both felonies, and jailed on $100,000 bail. If convicted on the arson charge, he could face up to 15 years in state prison.

Melville, 60, who has maintained the farm since 1964, said only four of his 181 cows were rescued from the barn. He estimated his losses at $400,000.

''I don't know what I'm going to do,'' he said. ''There's no way I can start over.''

Air Force member

Sheriff's Detective Robert Harpp said Miller was a firefighter attached to the Air Force's 49th Civil Engineers at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, N.M.

Miller told investigators he was home in LaGrange on leave from the Air Force this week in order to take the New York City firefighters' exam, Harpp said.

The detective said Miller was apparently despondent over a recent breakup with his girlfriend. He was driving around rural Dutchess County about 3 a.m. Monday morning and arrived at the farm where he worked briefly in summer 2001.

Harpp said Miller told investigators he set fire to some hay at one end of the barn, then tried to put it out. When the fire began to spread, Harpp said, Miller drove to a nearby convenience store and used a pay phone to call in the alarm. He then drove to Pleasant Valley Fire Station One, where he was joined by other volunteers who responded to the blaze.

About 75 firefighters tried to put the fire out, but the 5,600-square-foot barn, which contained about 400 bales of hay, was engulfed in flames when they arrived and virtually nothing inside was saved, Melville said.

Harpp said Miller had been an active member of the Pleasant Valley fire company for several years before he joined the Air Force about 11 months ago.

Calls to the Pleasant Valley fire company were not returned.

Harpp and Detective Pat Whelan, members of the sheriff's department's arson investigation unit, said they were assisted in the investigation by uniformed deputies and members of the Dutchess County Cause and Origin Team.

Harpp and Whelan said they began to suspect Miller may have set the fire when certain details of his story about how he had discovered the blaze appeared to be inconsistent. Confronted with the inconsistencies, he admitted the crime, the detectives said.

Sheriff's Detective Lt. Bruce Coneeny said it is common for arsonists to commit their crimes as a way of venting rage about something that has happened in their lives.

Two local excavators, James Fanitzi, owner of Hyde Park Sand and Gravel, and Daniel Budd of Staatsburg, used heavy equipment to level the remains of the fire and bury the animals' charred carcasses Monday and Tuesday.

Budd said he received a call Tuesday morning from an anonymous donor who offered to pay the expenses of the cleanup.

''He told me, 'I don't want anyone to know who I am; I just want to pay the bill,' '' Budd said.