SHAMOKIN FIRE RULED ARSON
SHAMOKIN - James L. Neidlinger Jr. told police he was frustrated and angry over fights he had with his girlfriend over the past few days, and that's why he stuffed leaves and branches in a rear doorway at an abandoned apartment building and lit them on fire Monday night.
The fire would rage for more than two hours at 604-608 E. Sunbury St. (Route 61), destroying the building and damaging a home next door.
Neidlinger, 21, with a last known address of 203 E. Dewart St., Shamokin, was arraigned Tuesday afternoon in front of Magisterial District Judge John Gembic III on arson and related charges and jailed in lieu of $200,000 cash bail.
Neidlinger's frustration was matched by one woman who yelled at the suspect as he was led to a police vehicle after his court appearance.
"I hope you got what you deserve," Avis Bowers, of Shamokin, called out to Neidlinger. "What about my grandchildren?"
Bowers, whose daughter and family live near the fire scene, was one of at least 14 individuals, not including media, present on Eighth Street outside the Northumberland County Career and Arts Center, location of Gembic's office, indication of the considerable attention the arson arrest attracted.
While Neidlinger is charged only in relation to Monday night's fire, that blaze was the fifth in the same neighborhood since September, and the city is in "an uproar," as Bowers put it.
The building, described as a "triple home" because it's divided into three separate units, is likely to be a complete loss. The neighboring abandoned single home at 602 E. Sunbury, the corner of Sunbury and Franklin streets, was also damaged.
Neidlinger was charged by city police with multiple felonies: two counts of risking a catastrophe; 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; criminal mischief damaging tangible property; and criminal trespass-entering a structure. He also faces a misdemeanor count of criminal trespass-simple trespass.
Neidlinger, even if he raised the bail, will remain in prison on a probation detainer. He was sentenced on Nov. 19 to 18 months probation after pleading guilty to a charge of forgery for allegedly stealing five checks from the mailboxes of Kulpmont residents on April 11 and forging the checks in an attempt to cash them at Susquehanna Bank. Police said the checks totaled $283.44.
Dressed in an orange prison jump suit, Neidlinger didn't say much before Gembic, only speaking to answer questions about why he was on probation and the fact that he would use a public defender as his attorney.
Asked if he wanted to make any statement at that time, he shook his head no. The arraignment was over in less than 10 minutes.
Gembic tentatively scheduled a preliminary hearing for 9:30 a.m. Tuesday.
Connection to others?
At a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Shamokin police Patrolman Ray Siko II provided little information on the investigations of abandoned buildings at 725 N. Shamokin St., just one block from the scene of Monday's fire, and at 422 N. Shamokin St., which had been home to the former Hardshell Cafe.
Both buildings caught fire 15 hours apart Thursday. State police are assisting with the investigation into those incidents and were observed inspecting the buildings with a police dog Tuesday.
Two other fires occurred in September in the 700 block of Shamokin Street.
Siko said it was "premature" to say if Neidlinger is, or is not, a suspect in the other investigations, but he confirmed he was questioned about them.
Siko wouldn't say if there are any other suspects or persons of interest; however, police have conducted "multiple interviews" and are actively following up on information provided by the public, he said.
"Everyday we're getting information," he said. "We're exchanging information within the department. We're following up on every phone call."
He encouraged people, no matter how insignificant the information may appear, to contact police at 648-5708.
'So much anger'
After his arraignment, Neidlinger was escorted by Shamokin Police Officer Jarrod Scandle and Special officer Robert Searls to an awaiting police cruiser outside, where Bowers and others had gathered.
Bowers said her daughter, Marian Smith, son-in-law and five grandchildren all under age 13, live at 712 N. Franklin St., directly across Franklin Street from the scene of the fire.
"What makes people do this?" she asked while Neidlinger was in the arraignment. "What goes through their head?"
She said her daughter was walking home Monday night from her job at O'Brien's Pizza, approximately a block away, when she smelled the odor of burning wood, but she didn't see any flames. This was before fire personnel were called.
"What if it had reached my grandchildren? I have so much anger right now," Bowers said. "I wish I could just grab him."
Not long afterward, she would express some of her frustration toward Neidlinger.
Members of the media also questioned Neidlinger as to his involvement with the fire or comments about the charges as he was escorted both into and out of the building. He only shook his head from side to side.
Fire call at 10:25 p.m.
Monday night's fire call came at 10:25 p.m., pressing firefighters into service for the third time that day. A devastating fire that started at 4:55 a.m. destroyed two double-homes and four other homes in Kulpmont, and some firefighters were still at the scene of a 7:25 p.m. blaze in the Springfield section of Coal Township that gutted a single home.
Those responding to Shamokin were met with heavy smoke and began to smash in windows on the first floor. After that, heavy flames could be seen on the first floor.
The fire already raging, firefighters went into defensive mode, attacking from the outside.
"Being that three of the buildings were vacant, no one entered the structure due to its unknown stability and the condition of the interior," Shamokin Deputy Chief Jason Zimmerman said Tuesday.
The blaze was ruled under control at approximately 12:25 a.m. Tuesday.
"We stopped our efforts at that point and let the police do some investigative work in the building," Zimmerman said. "That gave us the opportunity to let some crews head for home and reposition others to help us."
The scene was considered secure at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday.
Joining Shamokin in the response were firefighters from Coal Township, Kulpmont, Mount Carmel, Overlook, Sunbury, Atlas and Upper Augusta Township. A ladder truck from Danville and another Coal Township engine were both on standby in Shamokin.
'Afraid to sleep'
City police had their eyes and ears tuned to the large crowd that gathered at Monday night's fire scene.
"We are looking for people that we've seen here before, seeing if there is any connection," police chief Edward Griffiths said at the scene.
Many in the crowd had similar comments, ranging from, "I can't believe this is happening again" to "I hope they catch whomever is doing this soon" to "I'm afraid to go to sleep at night."
Last Thursday, when two fires hit vacant structures three blocks away from each other within 15 hours and in the same neighborhood as Monday's fire, Griffiths said there was cause to be concerned. Monday, a look of concern and frustration was evident on his face.
"If you see someone in an area they are not supposed to be in, don't be afraid to contact police," he said. "It doesn't matter how stupid you think it is, it could be something that really helps us."
Following a press conference Tuesday following Neidlinger's arraignment, Shamokin Mayor George Rozinskie Jr. said he's heard concerns expressed by several city residents and have reassured them police and fire personnel are doing all they can.
"The firefighters do one hell of a job out here, and the police officers," he said.
According to information provided by the Northumberland County Tax Claims Bureau, 604 and 606 Sunbury are owned by Bettina Senessey, of Paxinos. The third part of the structure, 608, is owned by Barbara Frazier, of Coal Township, and Ruth Miscavage, of Shamokin.
The single home at 602 E. Sunbury St., at the corner of Sunbury and Franklin streets, is owned by Susan Martz, of Paxinos. Zimmerman said there was smoke and water damage throughout and some fire damage to the third floor and the back porch.
Frazier said she bought 608 E. Sunbury St. just a few weeks ago for $1,500. The sale is so fresh she doesn't yet have the deed.
Her intent was to fix it up with the help of her brother, Andy Britton Sr., and friends, and eventually put it up for rent. They had been tearing apart moldy plaster and piling it up inside to haul away this weekend.
"All that work for nothing," Britton said as he and his sister looked on from Sunbury Street toward the burned-out homes Tuesday afternoon.
Frazier estimated she spent about $1,000 on the property so far, and expects the costs to demolish it, if she is held responsible to do so, to be much more expensive.
She doesn't have homeowner's insurance. That's because no firm would insure the property, she said, because it had a badly damaged roof and was a row home.
"I don't have the money to tear this down," she said.
'Board them up'
Siko repeated an earlier call by city officials for the owners of vacant buildings to secure those structures.
"Board them up," he said. "Secure them."
Such measures may not keep someone out, but it will make it harder for them to enter and that may provide just enough time for a witness to observe something or for a police officer to respond.
R. Craig Rhoades, Shamokin city councilman and public safety director, said blocking access to a vacant structure's basement or first floor would be of great help. The city, he said, does what it can to secure vacant buildings in repository with the county tax claims bureau.
(Staff Writers Eric Scicchitano and Justin Strawser contributed to this report.)