Boot print in snow, chatty behavior helped in arrest
SHAMOKIN - Police said a city man who initially acted as a witness had a lot to say after an abandoned apartment building and a neighboring house were allegedly torched on Sunbury Street Monday night.
James L. Neidlinger Jr. told a police officer there appeared to be a "fire bug" in the city. He said the fire started in the basement of 604 E. Sunbury St. He talked about wanting to become a volunteer firefighter himself someday. He even gave details of a man he believed to be a suspect.
All this came before being read his Miranda rights. But after that came a confession, police said.
Neidlinger, 21, was charged Tuesday with arson and related offenses. Police say he admitted piling leaves and branches near a basement doorway at the rear of the apartment building and igniting them with a lighter.
He knew it was "burning good" when the wood around the doorway caught fire, according to a criminal complaint filed Tuesday. Asked why he chose the abandoned building, he said he knew the surrounding buildings were also vacant and that he "didn't want to hurt or kill anyone."
Details of a Shamokin Police investigation of the fire were revealed in the complaint as well as during a press conference with the city's police chief, fire investigator, public safety director and mayor.
Police Chief Ed Griffiths credited city officers, both on-duty and off-duty, with working virtually non-stop during the investigation.
He cited the wherewithal of Cpl. Darwin Tobias III, who along with Patrolman Scott Weaver were among the first to respond to the scene, to take a photograph of a footprint in the snow in a alleyway beside the burning buildings. That footprint helped lead police to Neidlinger, who was standing with friends at the scene. After that it seems Neidlinger talked enough to implicate himself.
"It just amazes me how Cpl. Tobias noticed the boot print. ... In the middle of that to stop and take a picture of that boot print, that ended up being pretty huge in this arrest," Griffiths said.
Walk and talk
Neidlinger was not in police custody when he agreed to walk with officers two blocks south on Franklin Street to the city police department to provide information for their investigation.
"While we were walking down to the police department, he actually initiated several conversations ... and started giving in detail facts about the fire, which grew suspicion," Patrolman Ray Siko II, the city's fire investigator, said during the press conference.
Neidlinger told police he was out for a walk when he saw a male dressed in dark clothing and boots run from the scene uphill toward the Bunker Hill section of the city. The man was 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighed about 130 pounds. He had brown hair and brown eyes.
"The description he gave was pretty much his own," Griffiths said.
"He (was) quoted as saying, 'The boots are similar to mine,'" Siko said.
Siko, who was called by Tobias to respond to the scene, questioned Neidlinger on the suspect description, and noted it sounded like him. Neidlinger began breathing heavy and his right hand shook, police said. Tobias then told Siko the boot print from the snow appeared to match the boots on Neidlinger's feet.
After being read his Miranda rights, Siko pressed Neidlinger and told him he believed he was lying. According to the complaint, Neidlinger said he wasn't being honest. The suspect description was fabricated, and he said he lied because he believed police were on to him.
"He felt if he would give us another name or information or description, we would immediately go out for this person," Siko said. "Things just weren't matching up from the beginning."
He did not implicate anyone else in the fire, Siko said, adding there are no other suspects.
'Set it on fire'
According to the complaint, Neidlinger was disturbed by a fight he had with his live-in girlfriend and went for a walk around the city. He contemplated suicide, by jumping from the Cameron Bridge, but thought better of it.
Still upset as he walked outside 604 E. Sunbury St., "Something just told him to set it on fire," he told officers.
"He stated, 'I was just trying to get rid of my anger and stress,'" according to the complaint.
He took one lap around the 600 block of East Sunbury Street (Route 61) to see if anyone was around before moving to the rear of the row homes. A basement door at 606 E. Sunbury St. was locked. He walked next door to 604 and piled up the debris. Once it caught he walked away, north on Pearl Street, toward the Bunker Hill baseball fields to a friend's house.
The complaint states Neidlinger and his friends all took notice at the sound of emergency sirens. He looked out a window and told his friends there was a fire up the street before running out of the house.
A short time later, he was speaking to Tobias, according to the complaint.
Siko said Neidlinger showed remorse about the incident and expressed concern about potentially hurting others.