SHAMOKIN — A city man already charged with an arson fire that destroyed a triple home on Sunbury Street in January has now been charged with setting two fires that destroyed several other buildings in Shamokin in the past five months.
James L. Neidlinger, 21, who is in prison on $200,000 bail, is now the suspect in three of four arson fires in the city since September. As for the fourth fire, police said Friday an arrest is imminent — but the suspect in that case is not Neidlinger.
Patrolman Ray Siko II charged Neidlinger, whose last known address is 203 E. Dewart St., with arson and related charges stemming from blazes at 717 N. Shamokin St. on Sept. 5 and at the former Hardshell Cafe and an adjacent building in the 400 block of North Shamokin Street on the evening of Jan. 24.
Neidlinger has been in prison since Jan. 29 on charges he set a fire Jan. 28 that destroyed a three-story apartment building in the 600 block of Sunbury Street (Route 61), the third two-alarm fire that day after earlier, non-suspicious fires in Kulpmont and Coal Township.
The new charges were filed Thursday.
Witness comes forward
Fire broke out inside the rear of 717 N. Shamokin St. on Sept. 5, and quickly spread to other abandoned structures at 719, 721, 721-A, 723 and 725 N. Shamokin St. The buildings at 717 and 719 N. Shamokin St. sustained the most damage, but all the damaged properties were condemned.
According to court documents filed by Siko, the investigation into September’s fire was dormant until Jan. 31, after Neidlinger was arraigned for the Sunbury Street blaze. A witness, Russ Dindorf, told police he saw Neidlinger several hours before the Sept. 5 fire trying to enter the front door at 717 N. Shamokin St.
Siko said he visited Neidlinger in prison on Feb. 6 and asked if he understood why he wanted to talk to him again. Neidlinger replied, “It’s about the other fires,” Siko said.
Asked what other fires, Neidlinger replied, “the fires by Lee’s garage and the yellow house near the gas station on Shamokin Street.”
Neidlinger told Siko he went to the “yellow house” at 717 N. Shamokin to see if there was anything of value inside. He attempted to enter through the front door, but couldn’t. He told Siko he found a partially open door around back and went inside. He told Siko he found nothing worth taking, the officer reported, but he gathered some papers in a middle room and lit them. He left the building as the blaze started to grow.
Neidlinger described for Siko a similar situation on Jan. 24, when he entered the former Hardshell Cafe at Shamokin and Shakespeare streets, across from David’s Distributing, or “Lee’s garage,” as Neidlinger said. He entered through a rear door, found nothing of value to take, gathered papers together in the basement, lit them and left, Siko said he was told.
That fire not only damaged the former cafe, but also the adjacent structure at 420 N. Shamokin St., keeping emergency crews on the scene for approximately three hours.
‘Don’t want to lie’
In both cases, Neidlinger was able to provide specific information about the interior of the buildings, including where doorways led, items inside, where steps were located and other details, Siko said.
At the end of the interview, Siko asked Neidlinger why he wanted to come clean about the fires. “I know you caught me and I don’t want to lie to you,” was his response, the officer reported.
Siko told the prisoner he appreciated his honesty and thanked him. Neidlinger thanked Siko for treating him “like a human.”
Neidlinger had told police about the Jan. 28 blaze that he set it after walking around the city contemplating suicide. He said he was angry and frustrated over fights with his girlfriend.
In both new cases, Neidlinger was charged with felony counts of arson and related offenses endangering persons; arson and related offenses endangering a building; arson of an uninhabited or unoccupied building; arson of an uninhabited or unoccupied building causing more than $5,000 damage; burglary; criminal trespass-entering a structure; risking a catastrophe and criminal mischief-damaging tangible property.
He is expected to be arraigned Tuesday before Magisterial District Judge John Gembic III, Shamokin. He remains in Northumberland County Prison on a probation detainer and the $200,000 bail for the Sunbury Street fire charges.
As for the fire earlier on Jan. 24, which damaged a vacant three-story brick apartment building at 725 N. Shamokin St. Siko reported the “imminent” arrest Friday afternoon.