Two Suspects Arrested in Southeast Pennsylvania Arsons

February 23, 2009

Authorities hunting for arsonists behind a string of fires in a small, Southeastern Pennsylvania steel town made two arrests within hours of each other.

Roger Leon Barlow Jr., 19, and Mark Gilliam, 20, were arrested Thursday in connection with the blazes that have left several dozen people homeless and prompted city officials to declare a state of emergency.

Several residents interrupted a City Hall news conference about the arrest with applause. City Councilman Kurt Schenk said he was elated.

“It’s just evil — pure evil — as far as I can see, anybody who would want to hurt somebody like that,” Schenk said.

Coatesville, about 35 miles west of Philadelphia, has tallied 18 arsons this year and 26 last year, one of them fatal. In December, authorities arrested three people believed to have been responsible for some of the arsons, including an early December blaze that killed an 83-year-old woman.

But the fires continued, and many of the city’s approximately 11,000 residents said they were afraid to go to bed at night for fear another blaze would be set.

Barlow, described as a pyromaniac who liked to watch things burn, was charged with setting nine fires in the town of Coatesville, including a block-long blaze that displaced dozens of people last month.

Gilliam, of West Chester, faces a federal charge for the Jan. 25 attempted arson of a restaurant in Thorndale, four miles east of Coatesville, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said.

John Hageman, spokesman for the ATF, declined to say whether the two men knew each other. “We had developed information on the two individuals and were seeking both of them,” Hageman told The Associated Press late Thursday.

Gilliam was arrested without incident at his home and is expected to appear in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia on Friday.

It was not immediately clear if Gilliam had a lawyer. A phone number listed for a Mark Gilliam on the block where the ATF said the suspect lived was disconnected.

Barlow, an automotive technical student from nearby Downingtown, was charged with arson, aggravated assault and related counts. He was arraigned Thursday afternoon and bail was set at $9 million. Staff at the Downingtown district court where Barlow was arraigned said he did not have an attorney.

Chester County District Attorney Joseph Carroll, who lives in Coatesville, said he does not believe the fires were gang-related, hate crimes or targeted at specific individuals. Carroll called Barlow a pyromaniac, but declined to disclose evidence to support it, other than to say that Barlow enjoyed watching fires.

Barlow, a high school graduate, lives with his parents. His father, Roger, declined to comment when reached by phone Thursday afternoon, but spoke to reporters later in the evening.

“I just think he got with the wrong crowd,” the elder Barlow said. “The wrong crowd led him up the wrong path.”

An arson task force focused on Barlow after police stopped his vehicle, said Mark Potter, an ATF agent. Investigators asked Barlow what he was doing in town. Based on his reaction — and a later glance at his MySpace page, which includes a box showing animated flames — officers knew they wanted to talk to him further, Potter said.

“Roger Barlow’s dangerous and risky behavior for the past 48 days, and maybe longer, has now been stopped,” he said.

Even with Barlow and Gilliam in custody, Hageman said the Chester County Arson Task Force will remain active and look at the other unsolved arsons and determine if either man had a role in them.

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