June 11, 2010

Daily Local: State charges filed against arson suspect


State charges filed against arson suspect

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By MICHAEL P. RELLAHAN, Staff Writer

WEST CHESTER — Caln police have filed arson charges against the West Bradford man who was charged by federal authorities with trying to set a fire in a township diner during the infamous string of incendiary blazes in the Coatesville area.

Mark Edward Gilliam, 21, has been held in the Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia since March 2009 awaiting trial in U.S. District Court. Authorities contend the “wanna-be firefighter” attempted to set a fire in the men’s room of the Happy Days Family Bistro in January of that year.

Gilliam was allegedly friends with Roger Barlow Jr., another of the men charged with arsons in the city, including the multimillion-dollar blaze that consumed more than a dozen homes on Fleetwood Street.

The charges that Gilliam now faces in state court are identical to those he was indicted on in

federal court. But an attorney representing Gilliam said he is hopeful that the switch in jurisdictions will mean a speedy end to the case, which has lingered for months in a pre-trial disposition.

Defense attorney Thomas Bellwoar of West Chester said he anticipated that Gilliam would enter a guilty plea in the case soon, and that in return the federal authorities would drop their charges against him. The federal case involved the very real possibility of a mandatory five-year prison term, while the state charges do not call for such a punishment.

“This is something we negotiated,” said Bellwoar, referring to his co-counsel, Richard Meanix of West Chester. “We are very pleased that the federal government agreed to send the case to the state courts.

“We anticipate a swift resolution of the entire case,” Bellwoar said in an interview in the Chester County Justice Center Thursday, after appearing in front of President Judge James P. MacElree II on another matter.

Patricia Hartman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia, declined to comment on the matter.

Assistant District Attorney Thomas Ost-Prisco, the prosecutor who has handled the Coatesville arson cases, said he believed that Gilliam would be arraigned in Magisterial District Court in Thorndale sometime next month, when he is released from federal custody.

Neither he nor Hartman would discuss why the charges were transferred to state court. Ost-Prisco declined to comment on what the future of the case against Gilliam holds locally.

According to the criminal complaint filed Tuesday by Caln Detective James Lippolis, the night manager at the 24-hour restaurant in the 3400 block of East Lincoln Highway called emergency services at about 4:20 a.m. Jan. 25, 2009, to report a fire inside the building.

The fire had started in ceiling tiles above a toilet in the men’s room of the restaurant. The night manager had seen the tiles smoking and turning black and pulled them out of the ceiling and extinguished them before any major damage occurred.

Lippolis wrote the fire had started in a ventilation duct above the toilet stall. Along with the partially burned ceiling tiles, Lippolis noticed some white tissue paper that appeared to have been twisted lying on the floor beneath where the fire had been set.

An agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms who was assisting in the investigation later determined that the fire had been deliberately set.

While he was processing the scene with Officer Laura Moody, Lippolis said, a man later identified as Gilliam approached wearing a green neon vest and a sweatshirt that read West Bradford Fire Dept. Unsolicited, Gilliam began talking to them, saying he “was tired because he was running with the Coatesville fire all night.” Asked if he was a firefighter, Gilliam indicated that he was, pointing to his sweatshirt.

He left, but returned sometime later as police were still working in the bathroom. He asked Lippolis how fingerprints were lifted and whether they could be taken from wood. Lippolis said they could, and Gilliam responded “Really?” before leaving again.

When the investigation in the bathroom was finished nearly four hours after police arrived, Gilliam was still in the restaurant. He approached the night manager and police and asked if he could clean the bathroom, the affidavit states.

Beginning in February 2008 and ending in March 2009, there were approximately 66 arson-related fires in the city and surrounding areas of Coatesville, including 43 in 2008 and 23 in the first three months of 2009, Lippolis said. A task force involving state and local police, the ATF and FBI had been set up to investigate the arsons.

As part of that investigation, members of the West Bradford Fire Company were interviewed about Gilliam. They said that although he had applied for membership with the company, he had been rejected and was not permitted to respond to calls with the company.

Two witnesses identified Gilliam as being in the restaurant the night of the fire. One person told police that he had seen a man standing on the toilet where the fire started, “fumbling” around with ceiling tiles. A short time later, emergency vehicles arrived and the man learned about the fire. He later identified Gilliam from a photo lineup as “close to his recollection” of the man he saw in the bathroom.

Another witness, who told police he was a friend of Gilliam’s, said he had been in a booth with Gilliam while the police processed the scene of the fire. He said that Gilliam told him he had started the fire, putting the paper in the ceiling.

The affidavit does not identify either of the witnesses.

However, at the time of Gilliam’s arrest in March 2009, authorities linked Gilliam to alleged arsonist Roger Barlow Jr., who is charged with setting as many as nine other fires in the city area. And Meanix implied that the government’s case relied on statements from Barlow.

An FBI agent involved in the case said Gilliam had come to the attention of investigators before the person in the restaurant identified him on the night of the fire. In connecting Barlow to Gilliam, the agent said Barlow had agreed to have a telephone conversation with Gilliam recorded by police after telling police that Gilliam had helped him start each of the nine fires Barlow is accused of setting.

Barlow said Gilliam would bring a duffle bag with a flammable liquid, rags and cigarette lighters and they would drive to Coatesville to set the fires. But during the phone conversation, Gilliam refused to admit helping Barlow set the fires. Afterward, Barlow took back what he had said about Gilliam’s involvement.

Police also said Gilliam was accused by police in Phoenix, Ariz., of making “acid bottle” bombs while he lived there with his family in 2006. When police searched his home, they found materials that could be used to make incendiary bottle rocket engines, the agent said.

The agent’s affidavit also notes Gilliam’s car was equipped with nine strobe lights like those used by volunteer firefighters while responding to fires.

Bellwoar said his client was eager to get the case against him resolved.

“He is enthusiastic about a potential resolution, and is certainly happy to hear that he is going to state court instead of federal court, where he faced a mandatory five-year sentence,” Bellwoar said.

 

Posted In: Criminal Case