Coatesville arsons: city and feds unite

January 26, 2009 8:34:16 PM PST
Some very stringent measures are being considered by the City of Coatesville, including an all out curfew hoping to stop or deter the arson fires. And Governor Ed Rendell and the federal government are making all sorts of resources available to help combat & capture the person or persons responsible for the fires.

City's fears

Before an overflowing crowd packed into the small Coatesville council chamber, Fire Chief Kevin Johnson assessed the arsons that have besieged the community in a stark manner.

"This is a form of terrorism it really is," he said.

The police chief wanted to assure the public that some of the best investigators in the United States are involved in the case including profilers of serial criminals.

"The very best minds including individuals who are involved in counter-terrorism, homeland security and others are in consultation with the city," said Chief William Matthews of the Coatesville PD.

The disaster in the 300 block of Fleetwood that consumed 15 homes over the weekend in what is suspected to be another arson case has sent this community into a state of terror. And yet despite an overflowing crowd of concerned residents, the Council President warned that they would limit public comment on the state of emergency until a town hall meeting could be held on Wednesday to accommodate all who wanted to speak. That did not sit well with some including victim's of the fires.

"They're not really doing what we elected them to do they're too slow and I'm angry," said Darrell Pitts.

Charles Jordan agreed, "I have nothing left and red cross only gave me three days of a hotel room I have nothign left so how are they helping me in Coatesville."

City council voted to hire an Emergency Mgmt. coordinator, voted to buy 1-thousand motion-detector lights to sell to residents for 12-dollars each to help deter arson fires, and voted to add 5-thousand dollars to the $12,500 reward being offered by the citizens crime commission. And finally, a town hall meeting has been set for Wednesday @ 7pm @ Gordan Elementary so that residents can air their concerns.

Since the beginning of 2008, there have been 30 intentionally started fires, and 14 of them have occurred this month alone.

CLICK HERE for map of suspicious fires from December 7, 2008 to January 24, 2009 in the Coatesville area.

The latest suspected arson happened on Saturday, damaging or destroying 15 homes. The flames forced some 50 people out onto the streets, with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

So far, that fire has not been confirmed to be an arson, but is being called suspicious. Investigators say it is consistent with the fires that have been plaguing the community.

VIDEO: Fire victims pick up the pieces. Erin O'Hearn reports.

Plea for Help

Coatesville city officials, along with those from the state police, ATF and the district attorney's office, appeared at a news conference Monday afternoon to assure residents that they were doing everything they could to catch those responsible for starting the fires.

They said a unified command has been established, so that every agency can more easily work together to solve the case.

However, they said they still need the public's help. They asked everyone to immediately report suspicious people and vehicles around homes, in alleys and around trash cans and dumpsters.

Coatesville officials said, if you see anything suspicious, to call a special hotline at any time of day, (610) 636-0514, to immediately reach local police.

While they are asking citizens to be eyes and ears for law enforcement, they're also urging people to refrain from patrolling the streets and taking matters into their own hands.

Rewards are being offered for information leading to an arrest in these fires.

The citizen's crime commission has increased the reward to $12,500 for information leading to an arrest in this case. Their number is 215-546-TIPS

Crimestoppers is also offering a cash reward, but the amount hasn't been specified. Their number is 1-800-4-PA-TIPS.

CLICK HERE for a slideshow of images from the fire on Saturday.

Bitter Homecoming

Residents returned Monday morning to get a first hand look at the damage.

Charles Thomas returned to feed his family's cat, while wondering how someone could intentionally burn down so many homes.

"It's sickening. How could you do this to somebody? It's just not right, it's just not right for us all to lose everything like that. But they don't care, I guess. They're just sick people," Thomas said.

Others went inside to retrieve what they could find.

"Everything's wet inside, everything's destroyed," said fire victim Desarae DeVault. "It's a disaster. I just want them caught, that's all. I want justice done."

Another victim, Judy Schooles, also came back for a first look since being burned out.

"Since this happened, I've been having nightmares, waking up in shakes," said Schooles. "We're like one big happy family over here. We all had our lights on in the front and the back, we looked out for each other. For someone to do this to us is unbelievable."

Inside City Hall on Monday, people gathered to talk about a town watch.

One official is calling this a different kind of terrorism.

The fires prompted city officials to declare a state of emergency. That allows the city to deal with the situation without worrying about the budget.

Meanwhile, residents are being told to remove flammable materials from their porches, and keep their porch lights on at night.

Fires Continue After Arrest

One person has been killed in an intentionally set fire so far: 83-year-old Irene Kempest died just before Christmas.

22-year-old George Donkewicz, of Coatesville, is accused of setting that fire. He appeared in court Monday.

Police say Donkewicz confessed to the arson while in custody on suspicion of setting another fire days later.

Reward Fund

A reward fund has been set up to help catch those responsible for the fires. Contributions can be sent to:

Citadel Federal Credit Union
Coatesville Reward Fund
Attn: Office Manager
135 Modena Road
Coatesville, PA 19320

Another fund has been set up to help the people affected by the fires. Donations can be sent to:

Citadel Federal Credit Union
Coatesville Family Fund
Attn: Office Manager
135 Modena Road
Coatesville, PA 19320

The Brandywine Health Foundation announced on Monday it was contributing $10,000 to the Coatesville Family Fund. They're urging others to donate as well.

Phone Numbers:

Coatesville Police Hotline: (610) 636-0514

Citizen's Crime Commission: 215-546-TIPS

Crimestoppers: 1-800-4-PA-TIPS.

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