NORRISTOWN – A former Limerick man, allegedly “depressed and stressed” about issues with his house, will be under court supervision after he admitted to recklessly starting a fire that placed his home in danger of damage or destruction.
Joseph Francis O’Brien, 55, formerly of the 100 block of Wentworth Circle, was sentenced in Montgomery County Court on Monday to five years’ probation after he pleaded guilty to a felony charge of reckless burning in connection with a November 2012 fire at the Wentworth Circle residence.
Senior Judge John L. Braxton, a visiting judge from Philadelphia, also ordered O’Brien, who most recently resided in the first block of Woodstream Drive in West Norriton, to undergo an arson risk assessment and to comply with any recommendations for treatment.
An investigation of O’Brien began about 9 p.m. Nov. 11, 2012, when Limerick police and fire crews responded to a report of a fire at the Wentworth Circle home.
“The caller reported that he was filling a generator when the fire started and he had burned his hands,” Limerick Detective Ernie Morris alleged in the arrest affidavit.
When authorities arrived at the home they discovered a fire burning on the front lawn of the residence and they extinguished the fire with a portable fire extinguisher, court papers indicate. When police asked to see the generator to make sure there was no additional hazard, O’Brien led them to an open garage where the generator was located.
Police saw no hazard at the generator, no signs of damage to it, no signs of fire involvement and noted it was cold to the touch. However, authorities noticed a plastic tube, which they recognized as being part of a gasoline can, on the front walkway, according to court papers. At that time, O’Brien told police he was filling the generator when “something sparked and the gas can caught on fire,” according to the arrest affidavit.
Upon further investigation, police and firefighters located burn marks on a hardwood floor just inside the home and burn marks on a floor in the second floor laundry room and burn marks on carpet outside the laundry room. Authorities also noticed an odor of gasoline in the area of the burn marks, according to the criminal complaint.
Authorities also found a large burn spot in the grass of the front lawn and the remains of a plastic gas container on the sidewalk in front of the home, court papers indicate.
As authorities spoke with O’Brien they noticed he had slurred speech and an odor of alcohol on his breath, court documents indicate. Medical personnel checked O’Brien’s hands and saw no injury other than singed hair, police said. Authorities also noticed a butane barbecue lighter hanging from a pocket of O’Brien’s pants and the lighter was confiscated.
Fire investigators from the county detective bureau and state police examined the burn marks and determined the fire was intentionally set by human hands.
“The perpetrator poured gasoline at the entry to the laundry room, second floor and used an open flame to ignite the vapors. He also poured gasoline by the front door and on the lawn, again used an open flame to ignite vapors,” Morris alleged in the arrest affidavit.
A neighbor told police she saw fire in front of O’Brien’s home and when she went to investigate she observed O’Brien standing in the front yard watching the fire, according to the arrest affidavit. The neighbor recalled a conversation she had with O’Brien about a week earlier in which O’Brien told her, “Don’t be surprised if you see a ‘for sale’ sign for the house, I want to move out,” according to the arrest affidavit.
O’Brien, who was home alone at the time of the fire, subsequently told authorities he had consumed two shots of vodka and taken some prescription medication and he was transported to an area hospital for evaluation.
When authorities interviewed O’Brien at the hospital he admitted to being “depressed and stressed because of issues within his marriage, concerning issues with the house,” according to the criminal complaint. However, O’Brien denied knowing what ignited the gas can or the other floors in the home and blamed his inability to recall what took place on his use of medication.
“The conditions found at the scene did not support his story that he had caused an accidental fire while fueling his generator…,” Morris alleged.
Under state law, by pleading guilty to the reckless burning charge, O’Brien admitted that he intentionally started a fire that recklessly placed the Wentworth Circle residence in danger of damage or destruction.
Other charges of arson, dangerous burning, possession of incendiary material, risking a catastrophe and recklessly endangering others were dismissed against O’Brien in exchange for his plea to the reckless burning charge.
Follow Carl Hessler Jr. on Twitter @MontcoCourtNews