CLEARFIELD – The trial got under way Wednesday for a former employee who has been accused of setting fires at an assisted living home, which serves individuals with intellectual disabilities, in Sandy Township.
Steven Michael Rode, 24, of Brockway has been charged by Pennsylvania State Police with arson (eight counts); aggravated arson (four counts); risking catastrophe; and recklessly endangering another person (four counts).
District Attorney William A. Shaw Jr. is presenting the case on behalf of the commonwealth. Rode is being represented by defense attorney Robbie M. Taylor of Brookville. Judge Paul E. Cherry is presiding over the trial.
Rode was charged following a joint fire investigation by the Sandy Township police and a state police fire marshal into a string of four fires at Fayette Resources’ ranch-style home, located at 15 Arminta St., in January of last year.
In his opening statements to the jury, Shaw said Rode intentionally set the fires in order to receive recognition from his superiors for helping to extinguish them and for his handling of the situations. “… It’s why he did it.”
He pointed out that even though there wasn’t any widespread damage, a charred building or a pile of rubble, it was still arson and the lives of people with disabilities were put in danger, and they could’ve been hurt because of Rode’s actions.
Taylor introduced Rode to the jury and stated he was “not guilty.” He claimed there wasn’t evidence to support a crime had occurred, the fires were the result of electrical and mechanical issues and Rode was coerced into a confession.
Owen Samuels, the other employee present when all four fires occurred, testified first for the commonwealth. On Jan. 14, 2018, he said the home was “oddly” experiencing some electrical issues, and it didn’t appear neighboring homes were having similar issues.
He said the power was “flickering” and it progressively got worse as the night went on. He contacted the maintenance department and Penelec was subsequently notified.
He and Rode were advised to sleep in “shifts” that night until Penelec made a service call. “But before Penelec came, we had two fires,” he testified.
Around 10 p.m., there was a smell of smoke coming from the laundry room in the basement. Samuels said he and Rode located a small, glowing ember behind the baseboard heating unit; and, they doused it with a cup of water, extinguishing it.
He said sometime after midnight Jan. 15, 2018, he was awoken by Rode, who had smelled smoke coming from the laundry room. He said when they got downstairs there was a “plume of fire,” and it was extinguished by the fire department.
Then, Samuels said there were two more fires the night of Jan. 21, 2018. Around 7:30 p.m., the smoke alarm went off in the basement.
He and Rode went downstairs to investigate and saw smoke “billowing out” of the dryer in the laundry room. He opened the door, the clothes were smoldering inside and Rode put out the burning embers with their fire extinguisher.
Samuels said that he evacuated the home and contacted the on-call service personnel, and they were advised to relocate residents to another home on Wayne Road. Later they were permitted to return to the Arminta Street home to gather belongings.
He said Rode went inside, then came back out, after which he (Samuels) went in to complete one last check. He heard the smoke alarm going off and saw a “large, orange glow” in the laundry room. Samuels called 911 for the fire department.
Samuels – when asked by Shaw – testified that when he initially checked the home upon their return, there weren’t any signs of fire. “Everything was fine,” he said, adding he’d removed the clothing from the dryer to make sure each item wasn’t still smoldering.
He said firefighters were able to extinguish the pile of burning clothes that was now along the partition wall. Fire officials summoned police to conduct an investigation because it appeared the clothing had been moved from where Samuels had put them.
Officer Ken Kiehlmeier of the Sandy Township police did a walk-through at the scene and found out fire officials felt the fire was suspicious. He proceeded to collect voluntary verbal and written statements from Samuels and Rode.
He took part in another walk-through of the scene upon arrival of the state police fire marshal after which more in-depth interviews and statements were done with Samuels and Rode.
Kiehlmeier said Rode originally denied any involvement in the four fires, but his story eventually changed during his second police interview with Fire Marshal Greg Agosti present.
“He got to the point where he kind of figured out that we knew it was him,” he testified. He said Rode cried, collected himself for an apology and then detailed how he started each fire.
Rode told police he ignited dryer lint behind the baseboard heating unit Jan. 14, 2018 and insect glue tape on Jan. 15, 2018.
He went on to admit that he poured alcohol on clothes inside the dryer and ignited them Jan. 21, 2018. He also admitted to piling them against the partition wall and setting them on fire later on that day.
Kiehlmeier said Rode didn’t feel he got the recognition he deserved, so he lit the fires because he enjoyed the “pat on the back” for helping to extinguish them.
Agosti was the commonwealth’s last witness Wednesday. He said fire damage was minimal and he found the dryer, now located outside the home, was still in “nearly pristine” condition.
He said that all four fires were concerning because they didn’t appear accidental and instead to be ignited by direct flame by the human hand. He said the evidence and Rode’s confession were consistent, but even without the confession, he would have ruled arson.
During other testimony, Alan Quashnock of Quashnock Appliance in DuBois said he was asked to look at the dryer at an Arminta Street home for Fayette Resources on Jan. 16, 2018 following a fire. He said he couldn’t find anything wrong and put it back in service.
He said he was contacted again Jan. 22, 2018 following another fire because Fayette Resources wanted to replace the dryer, which he did. However, he noted it still could have been cleaned for continued operation.
Mike Dixon of Dixon’s Electric said he was requested to look at the electrical system Jan. 19, 2018 because there had been a fire at the home. He didn’t find any issues and found everything was OK.
The trial will resume at 9 a.m. Thursday in Courtroom No. 2 at the Clearfield County Courthouse.