A volunteer firefighter has been charged with setting the fires that destroyed several area businesses and homes, including Mermelstein’s Plaza.



Benjamin Christensen, 25, of 171 Belmont St. in Carbondale, is accused of committing five arsons in all, including a residence at Baker and Pierce Roads in Fell Twp., Jonal’s Lawn and Garden, Inc. in Greenfield Twp., Mermelstein’s in Carbondale Twp., the Fortuner Building in Mayfield, and a residence at 146 Lincoln Ave. in Carbondale.


 


A volunteer firefighter has been charged with setting the fires that destroyed several area businesses and homes, including Mermelstein’s Plaza.

Benjamin Christensen, 25, of 171 Belmont St. in Carbondale, is accused of committing five arsons in all, including a residence at Baker and Pierce Roads in Fell Twp., Jonal’s Lawn and Garden, Inc. in Greenfield Twp., Mermelstein’s in Carbondale Twp., the Fortuner Building in Mayfield, and a residence at 146 Lincoln Ave. in Carbondale.

The arsons were committed between Feb. 10, 2007 and April 2, 2008, according to Lackawanna County District Attorney Andrew J. Jarbola III, and they resulted in over $3.5 million in damages.

Jarbola held a press conference along with representatives of the Pennsylvania State Police as well as the Carbondale, Mayfield and Greenfield Twp. police departments this morning, to announce the arrest and charges.

He stated that Christensen, a volunteer firefighter with three area departments, told authorities that he set the fires to relieve anger in some cases and in other cases so he could respond to them as a firefighter.  Christensen responded to a number of the arsons as a firefighter.

Jarbola said the break in the case came when Detective Aaron Haley of the Carbondale Police Dept. was interrogating Christensen about an unrelated crime, a sexual assault.  During that interview, Christensen allegedly admitted to setting the Fell Twp. fire and then confessed to the others as well.

“Hopefully today’s arrest...will put to rest the idea that there’s [still] a firebug out there who’s committing arsons,” Jarbola offered.  “Thank God it’s over and done with.”

Carbondale Police Chief Jeffrey Taylor commended Detective Aaron Haley for his role in bringing the string of arsons to an end.

“Aaron did a great job and we’re very proud of him,” Taylor noted.  “That’s why he’s in the position he is.”

Sal Maiolatesi, owner of Maiolatesi Wine Cellars (one of several businesses destroyed in the Mermelstein’s blaze), told the Carbondale News that he was “thrilled” with this morning’s announcement.

“First of all it prevents this from happening again,” he explained.  “Secondly, it clears our names because there are always people out there who think that one of the business owners did this for insurance purposes or something like that.  I’m thrilled.”

When asked if Christensen acted alone, Jarbola responded:  “It’s under investigation.” 

Christensen has been charged with five counts of arson endangering persons, five counts of arson endangering property, five counts of reckless burning and 12 counts of criminal mischief, all of which are felonies.  He has also been charged with five misdemeanors for recklessly endangering another person.

According to a statement released by Jarbola’s office:  “The counts of arson endangering persons and recklessly endangering another person are in protection of the hundreds of firefighters and emergency personnel who had to respond to the arson fires, facing bodily injury or death.”

Christensen was arraigned and remanded to Lackawanna County Prison in lieu of $500,000 bail ($100,000 for each case).  He faces a maximum sentence of 279 years in prison and up to $530,000 in fines.