Act 16 puts focus on those who would do harm with fire
By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times
CALN — The terrifying rash of arsons that plagued the greater Coatesville area in 2008 and 2009 was a time that no one in Chester County wants to see relived any time soon, and a number of local legislators and the county’s District Attorney gathered Wednesday to laud a new law designed prevent that that more seriously punish those who would put others at risk with fire.
Sen. John Rafferty, the sponsor of the new law, gathered with a number of local legislators, District Attorney Thomas Hogan, and numerous local fire and police officials at the Thorndale Fire Company to talk about the new law, and how it will help prevent the type of tragic events seen in around Coatesville five years ago. Joining Rafferty were Sen. Dominic Pileggi, the Majority Leader of the state Senate, who also represents Chester County communities to the south of the Coatesville area, Sen. Andy Dinniman, who worked to get Democratic support for the bill and State Representative Tim Hennessey (R-26) whose house district included Coatesville at the time of the arson spree, who shepherded the bill through the state house.
“What happened in Coatesville, cannot be allowed to happen again,” Rafferty said, speaking of the new law.
Act 16 passed both the state House of Representatives and state Senate unanimously and was signed into law earlier this year by Gov. Tom Corbett. The law came as an immediate response to the more than 50 arsons — set by a half dozen individuals — that left a community in fear for months. The new law creates a new felony, aggravated arson, for those who start fires (or arrange for someone else to do so) with the intent to injure or kill others.
Pileggi cited three compelling reasons for the new law:
“To prevent arsonists, especially serial arsonists; to protect first-responders and to make the punishment better fit the crime,” he said.
Pileggi also praised Hogan, for pushing to make the law come about — at least the second time the District Attorney has pushed to improve the “tools” for law enforcement. Hogan also led the effort for new anti-gang legislation in 2012.
“I credit District Attorney Hogan,” Pileggi said, “who has a very keen understanding of the legislative process. He works with the General Assembly very effectively.”
The new law also makes it easier to charge a defendant with second degree murder if the fire accidentally causes a death, and first degree murder, if the intent of the fire was to cause bodily harm or death. Additionally, the law calls for more severe prison sentences if there more than three people in the building at the time of the fire or more than $1 million in property damage is caused by the fire.
In the aftermath of the arson, which included one fatality, 83-year-old city resident Irene Kempest in Dec. 2008, then-assistant District Attorney (and now Deputy District Attorney) Thomas Ost-Prisco, who was also a volunteer firefighter, began drafting proposed legislation to create a new class of arson — for those acts intended to harm others, including first responders.
This represented a big change, as up until Act 16, arson was largely seen as a property damage crime under the law, and there were limits in terms of sentencing those convicted of the crime.
Hogan, upon becoming District Attorney in 2012, took interest in Ost-Prisco’s proposal and connected him with Rafferty’s Chief of Staff, Ryan Boop, a former Lancaster County Assistant District Attorney, who had the background to translate law enforcement needs into workable legislation. Once the language was right, Rafferty worked with Pileggi to streamline the bill’s trip through the legislative process. The bill quickly gained bipartisan support and sailed without opposition to the governor’s desk.
“It was a real team effort,” Pilelggi said. “I’m honored to have been part of the team.”