2009-02-26 / Local & State

PA Arson Suspect Wanted To Be Firefighter

By Maryclaire Dale ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Police found accelerants, firefighting equipment and a newspaper article about the arsons plaguing a small steel town at the home of a wannabe firefighter they arrested while investigating the crimes, which have terrified residents for months and left many of them homeless, federal prosecutors said.

Mark Gilliam is charged only with a fire at a Thorndale restaurant hours after the torching of 15 row houses in nearby Coatesville, a town of about 11,000 people. A former classmate is charged with the row houses blaze and several others in the town, which is 35 miles west of Philadelphia.

Gilliam, 19, applied this month to join the West Bradford Fire Co., in Chester County, but was rejected. Still, the stocky, tattooed teenager, who prosecutors said had bought firefighting gear and drove a car illegally equipped with strobe lights to make it appear he was a firefighter, wore a shirt adorned with the department's gold crest at a brief federal court appearance Friday afternoon.

"Mark Gilliam is clearly someone who was very interested in being a firefighter, and he was very interested in fires,'' U.S. Attorney Laurie Magid said.

Another teen, Roger Barlow Jr., was charged Thursday with setting nine fires in Coatesville in a five-week period this year, including the one that destroyed the row houses on Jan. 24 and put dozens of people out of their homes.

With dozens of Coatesville's arsons since January 2008 still unsolved, investigators hope to learn more about Gilliam and Barlow, who met about two years ago, Magid said Friday.

Gilliam, of West Chester, did not enter a plea at his Friday court appearance. A judge ordered him held until a Feb. 27 bail and probable cause hearing. Defense lawyer Richard E. Meanix said only that Gilliam is presumed innocent.

Coatesville has tallied 66 arsons since the beginning of 2008, up from a recent estimate of 44, one of them fatal. In December, authorities arrested three people believed to have been responsible for some of the arsons, including a December blaze that killed an 83-year-old woman.

Many residents have been sleeping with at least one eye open since the fires began, and dozens remain out of their burned homes.

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