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Arson charges dismissed in plant fire

September 21, 2006|by DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, PA. - Charges against two Greencastle, Pa., men charged in the 2005 Chambersburg Waste Paper Co. fire were dismissed Wednesday in Franklin County Court by Judge John R. Walker, who ruled that police investigators failed to establish that the fire was intentionally set.

Eric Alden Frain, 22, of 1307 Preston Lane, and Trenton Allen Christophel, 22, of 7914 Browns Mills Road, had each been charged by Pennsylvania State Police with two third-degree felony counts of arson, as well as risking a catastrophe, failure to prevent a catastrophe and criminal trespass in the Sept. 2, 2005, fire that caused an estimated $5 million in damage. Though both had made written statements to police about their alleged involvement in the fire, Walker said, "the commonwealth has failed to satisfy the corpus delicti rule in this case."

"You have to show that the fire was intentionally set" to establish that the crime of arson was committed, Walker said at the end of the hearing. Corpus delicti is Latin for "body of crime" and is defined by "Black's Law Dictionary" as "the fact of a crime having been actually committed."

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Trooper Michael Rugh, a deputy fire marshal with the Pennsylvania State Police, testified that he arrived at Chambersburg Waste Paper Co. on the night of Sept. 2 while the fire was still burning. He testified that he returned the next day to continue the investigation.

Nelson asked whether the cause of the fire was established based on evidence found at the scene.

"Based solely on the scene examination ... I could not determine the cause," Rugh testified. Damage to the buildings was so extensive, Rugh testified, that he could not determine if it was intentionally set or accidental in origin.

Trooper Jeffrey A. Sarver, a state police fire marshal, testified that he had gotten written statements from Frain and Christophel, which were entered into evidence Wednesday, as well as a taped statement from Christophel, which was not.

Christophel's written statement read that he and Frain had driven behind the business on Loop Road to drink beer and that they lit some sticks on fire. Christophel wrote that Frain burned his hand on a stick and threw it on a bale of paper.

Frain's written statement read that he had tossed a cigarette into the back of his truck, which caused a stick to catch fire. He wrote that he burned his hand and threw the stick.

In several Pennsylvania arson cases, however, courts have ruled that the statements of the accused are inadmissible unless corpus delicti is established, according to attorney Eric Weisbrod, who represented Christophel.

"The police can't prove how the fire was started at all," said attorney David Keller, who represented Frain. "The charges should never have been filed."

Frain and Christophel declined to answer questions after the hearing.

A woman answering the telephone at Chambersburg Waste Paper Co. Wednesday afternoon said the company had no comment on the case.

Interviewed at the time the charges were filed in January, Sarver said he did not believe the fire was intentionally set and that Frain and Christophel tried to put it out, but "panicked" and fled. During the course of the investigation, he said he received information pointing to Frain and Christophel, including the first name of one man and the nickname of another.

The fire destroyed two buildings on the 15-acre site totaling about 75,000 square feet. Within days of the Labor Day weekend fire, however, Chambersburg Waste Paper, which recycles cardboard, office paper and other materials, was back in operation in rented space on Molly Pitcher Highway.

Work on a new foundation at the Loop Road site could be seen earlier this week.

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