2010-09-16 / Front Page

Hege Found Not Guilty In Arson Case

Deliberates for 35 minutes
By Chanin Rotz-Mountz

A local farmer took the stand on his own behalf last Thursday and repeatedly denied having ignited a blaze that destroyed an estimated 500 bales of straw that were earmarked to bed his 300 head of cattle and turn a small profit at the auction.

Lamar Hege of Decorum Road, Burnt Cabins, testified during the September 9 jury trial before Judge John R. Walker of the Fulton County Court of Common Pleas that he and brother Glenn took over their family farming operation, along with help from their mother, upon the passing of their father in 2003. A lifelong farmer, at the time of the alleged arson on September 1, 2009, Hege was farming more than 2,000 acres that included nine leased properties; milked 140 cows daily; and oversaw a herd of approximately 300.

Hege stated he was alerted to the blaze at the intersection of Peach Orchard and Dutch Corner roads when he received a call at 5:45 a.m. from a member of the McConnellsburg Volunteer Fire Co. (MVFC). After feeding his calves, Hege told the court he arrived at the scene 1-1/2 hours later and relieved the fire company of their watch over the smoldering fire that rendered the $17,500 in straw bales useless.

MVFC Chief Larry “Pete” Lynch responded under questioning by Fulton County District Attorney Travis Kendall that the initial 911 call came in at 4:30 a.m. The company reached the scene in Licking Creek Township within 10 minutes. Four pieces of company apparatus along with several personal vehicles and 13 firefighters responded.

Lynch noted after seeing the bales fully engulfed in flames upon arrival, he assessed the area for safety issues and possible structure endangerment. The decision was then made to allow the fire to burn itself out. No water or flame retardant was utilized.

Deputy fire marshal M.B. Gordon testified he arrived at 8:30 a.m. to find the straw stack, which was located 30 feet from the roadway, still in flames. Furthermore, he was unable to locate a burn trail or patter to the stack. He added the distance would have been too great for a discarded cigarette to ignite the stack.

In personally speaking to Hege at the scene the morning of the blaze, Gordon maintained Hege informed him he had placed a blue tarp over the stack a week prior to the fire and suggested maybe the blaze occurred due to the straw being “hot” or spontaneous combustion. Without the proper chemicals being present in straw for combustion to likely occur, Gordon went on to also rule out lightening strikes and other acts of nature.

The fire marshal further elaborated he was given a written statement from a local man, Matthew Pittman, who alleged Hege admitted to him he started the blaze because the straw was old and he needed the money. As a follow-up, Hege was interviewed at the Mc- Connellsburg barracks by Gordon. An alleged confession was made within a 30-minute time frame, with Hege claiming he ignited the tarp with a match.

Hege, however, countered much of Gordon’s testimony in court last week, stating the straw bales were put up in early July and were only two months old at the time of the fire. Due to the loss, he was forced to purchase well over $2,300 in wood chips and shavings every month to care for his animals.

He did admit, though, to falling behind in paying some bills, including a debt to Shipley Energy, which was awarded around $4,500 through a civil judgment.

Hege also admitted to filing a claim with Westfield Insurance Co. for his loss. The claim was eventually closed without a $10,000 payout being rendered as Hege failed to submit a notarized “proof of loss” form to the company after receiving advice from a local attorney.

Hege disclosed to the court that he proclaimed his innocence several times during the interview process with the fire marshal and never read Pittman’s written statement. He added Gordon leaned forward in his chair during the interview and got “pretty loud.”

“It scared me pretty good. I didn’t know what he would do at that point,” Hege recalled on the stand. “He told me that, ‘You can make this hard or you can make this easy.’”

Eventually, Hege said he questioned Gordon as to what he wanted him to say during the interview. “I said, ‘Do you want me to say I used matches or what,’” Hege testified.

In addition, the court learned that Pittman had recently been charged with making a false report to the Pennsylvania State Police. He chose to enter a guilty plea to concocting the story about Hege’s involvement in the blaze and has since been sentenced to complete a probationary period.

In his closing statements, defense attorney Eric Weisbrod asked the jury to ponder whether a crime was even committed on September 1, 2009, when excluding Hege’s alleged confession from the evidence collected. “Without the statement, he did nothing,” Weisbrod maintained.

“If he (Hege) didn’t start the fire to get insurance money, why didn’t he tell the trooper he didn’t start it,” District Attorney Kendall asked to the jury. “Why didn’t he pursue the insurance claim if he was innocent?”

Following a brief 35- minute period of deliberation, the jury reconvened to find Hege not guilty of one count of arson endangering a person (firefighters) and one count of arson for the purpose of collecting an insurance claim.

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