CLEARFIELD – A jury deliberated for approximately three hours Thursday afternoon before finding a former employee guilty of setting fires at an assisted living home serving people with intellectual disabilities.
Steven Michael Rode, 24, of Brockway was found guilty of arson (eight counts); aggravated arson (four counts); risking catastrophe; and recklessly endangering another person (four counts).
District Attorney William A. Shaw Jr. presented the case on behalf of the commonwealth. Rode was represented by defense attorney Robbie M. Taylor of Brookville. Judge Paul E. Cherry presided 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.
Jurors entered into deliberations at 1:52 p.m. and returned at 4:12 p.m. with two questions. The first question was to review Rode’s written statement to police in the courtroom.
The second was to have the testimony, given by witness Owen Samuels, read back with regards to the fourth fire. Cherry advised jurors that they must “rely upon their recollection” and to resume their deliberations.
Jurors reached their verdict at 4:49 p.m. After it was announced, the defense requested for the jury to be polled to confirm the verdict; all 12 jurors were in agreement.
Shaw motioned for the court to set appropriate bail, arguing the dynamics of the case had changed with multiple convictions and the sentence that could potentially be imposed.
Taylor countered, arguing that there hadn’t been any issues with Rode appearing for court. He also said his client has a supportive family here and has been working since the incident.
Cherry acknowledged while that may be true, it was prior to his conviction. He subsequently set Rode’s bail at $25,000 monetary, and he was taken into custody by sheriff’s deputies.
Rode’s sentence will be determined by the judge, but he will face “substantial jail time,” Shaw said in a media interview following the trial.
Rode Takes the Stand
Before the conclusion of testimony Thursday, Rode took the stand in his own defense. He started off by saying that he loved his job at Fayette Resources, which was followed by his account of each of the four fires.
On Jan. 14, he said it was a normal day until the electricity began flickering on and off around 8 p.m. – 9 p.m. Because he and Samuels couldn’t figure out why this was happening, the maintenance department was notified of the problem.
He said they were advised to sleep in shifts until Penelec could make a service call. At one point, he said he and Samuels smelled smoke and discovered “light smoke” coming from behind the baseboard heating unit in the basement laundry room.
Rode said there wasn’t a flame and a cup of water was poured on the smoke. Because it was believed to be fully extinguished, the fire department wasn’t notified.
After Samuels went to sleep, he said the electricity continued to flicker on and off. Sometime after midnight Jan. 15, Rode smelled smoke again and asked Samuels to investigate it with him.
According to Rode, they found a fire in the laundry room and it was put out by the Sandy Township Fire Department. He said firefighters were advised the home’s electric had been flickering throughout the evening.
He said Jan. 21 was another normal day until approximately 8 p.m. when the smoke alarm went off in the basement. He said he and Samuels went downstairs to the laundry room and found smoke coming out the door of the running dryer.
He said he retrieved the fire extinguisher and put the fire out in the back of the dryer. They were directed to relocate to another home on Wayne Road but later returned to gather some belongings.
Rode said he went in and came out to put belongings from his staff room into their van. He said Samuels asked him to go back in and check on a resident, which he did.
Before they left, he said Samuels went back inside and they heard the smoke alarm in the basement. As they reached the laundry room, they saw a flame shooting up the wall and 911 was called.
He proceeded to deny intentionally setting any of the fires and said his original statement to Officer Ken Kiehlmeier of the Sandy Township police was truthful.
However, Rode said he was asked to remain on-scene because the fire was suspected arson and fire officials had summoned a PSP fire marshal.
During the interview with Corporal Greg Agosti, he was asked how the fires started and indicated he didn’t know. He said Agosti pointed at him while saying “I think you did it.”
According to Rode, he continued to deny the accusation, explaining that he loved his job and his home’s four residents who he helped care for and considered to be family.
He told jurors Agosti called him a “monster” and threatened that he wouldn’t see his young daughter until she was 18 years old because he would have him put in jail. “I was forced to confess to something I didn’t do,” he testified.
After the interview, he said Agosti threw out some ideas as to what he wanted in a written statement, and he was asked to point out the locations of each fire within the laundry room.
Under cross-examination, Shaw called attention to the fact that Rode worked Jan. 14-15 when two fires occurred at the home. Then, he was off for a few days and there weren’t any fires until Rode returned Jan. 21.
Further, Shaw said that an electrician didn’t find any issues – interior or exterior – with the home’s electrical system, and an appliance repairman didn’t find anything mechanically wrong with the dryer that would cause a fire.
Rode was asked if police were lying to which he replied that his confession wasn’t true and words were put in his mouth. “I was told I wouldn’t see my little girl – who is six months old – until she was 18. That hits you as a parent.
“… I admitted to setting the fires because I had to in order to leave.” Shaw said “logically” this didn’t even make sense because when you confess to committing a crime, you’re in trouble.
During the rebuttal, Shaw called Agosti back to the witness stand to ask him about the nature of his interview with Rode. He testified that neither he nor Kiehlmeier used threats and scare tactics to obtain a forced confession.
As a matter of fact, Agosti said he explained to Rode that typically there are two classifications of arsonists – those who are monsters and pose a threat to society and those who have made a mistake.
He said he told Rode he felt he fell into the second classification and he should think about his family. Agosti said he wasn’t present in the room when Rode wrote his revised statement, and it was obtained by Kiehlmeier.
During his closing, Taylor argued that the police took “shortcuts” and right away dismissed any possibility of the fires being the result of electrical or mechanical problems.
In addition, he said police didn’t preserve and test items of evidence, such as the dryer, burnt clothing, and didn’t bother to even look for the lighter used to set the fires.
He said Agosti conducted a 20- to 40-minute fire investigation and “singled out” his client. “There’s no way he came to a scientific conclusion with certainty.”
Taylor asked the jury to give Rode the “benefit of the doubt” because people do give police false confessions. He called his client “weak and susceptible.”
In closing Shaw accused the defense of making it seem as though the police had failed to do their job. “Would you expect your police department to just accept a lie and say ‘hey, thank you?’ Or, would you expect them to get to the bottom of it?”
Ultimately, he said it came down to whether or not they believed Agosti, an expert in fire investigation, or Rode, a defendant “trying to be sly as a fox.”
Shaw said he cross-examined Rode for over a half-hour Thursday morning. “At times it got loud and accusatory … but he didn’t break then.”