Man charged in string of arsons pleads guilty but can attend college

August 09, 2013|By DON AINES |
  • Jacob Hess
Jacob Hess

One of eight people accused in a series of arsons in Washington and Frederick counties earlier this year pleaded guilty Friday in Washington County Circuit Court to conspiracy to commit first-degree malicious burning, but his sentence was deferred so he could attend college.

Assistant State’s Attorney Michele Hansen told Circuit Judge Daniel P. Dwyer that the prosecution and defense had reached a plea agreement in the case of 18-year-old Jacob Colin Hess.

The agreement calls for Hess to receive a three-year suspended sentence, but that he will serve Christmas break in the Washington County Detention Center.

In addition, he will perform community service, be jointly responsible for $32,902.91 in restitution and testify against several co-defendants if they go to trial.

Hess will not be sentenced until his co-defendants’ cases are resolved, so he would be available if called to testify in their trials, Hansen said.

Dwyer did not set a sentencing date.

Hess, of National Pike, Clear Spring, Md., had also been charged in April with second-degree arson, criminal conspiracy to commit second-degree arson, malicious destruction of property, malicious burning and conspiracy to commit malicious destruction of property. Those charges were dismissed as part of the agreement.

Hess was charged in one incident, the burning of a Lincoln Navigator on Betty Avenue in Boonsboro on the night of March 24-25, according to charging documents.

Hess, Tyler William Murray and Brandy L. Sneider-Koontz drove to the house, where Murray allegedly threw a trash bag containing a 1-pound bottle of propane and straw through the rear window of the 2007 Navigator belonging to Christopher Smith, the documents said.

The three fled when the Navigator’s alarm went off, but returned a short time later. Murray and Hess got out of the vehicle again, and when they returned, the Navigator was on fire, according to Sneider-Koontz’s account to police in the documents.

Hess’s brother and co-defendant, Joshua Ryan Hess, had been involved in a relationship with a member of Smith’s family, Hansen said during the plea hearing.

In a motion to amend the conditions of Hess’ pretrial release filed this week, defense attorney Erika Garrott Johnson wrote that he has a Merit Scholarship and college grant totaling $10,000 for his first year at Bethany College in Bethany, W.Va.

The motion said that he was also recruited to play football and was approved for a federal work study program on campus.

The motion requested Hess’ pretrial release conditions be modified so he can begin college next week.

Dwyer told Hess his bond remains in effect, but he may go to West Virginia for college.

Murray, 21, of Coney Court, Williamsport, faces the most charges in the series of about 40 fires in the two counties, court records said.

The State Fire Marshal’s Office filed 83 charges against him, including multiple counts of second-degree arson, criminal conspiracy, malicious destruction of property and malicious burning.

40 fires set

The 40 fires spanned a three-week period that began March 17 and ended the first week of April, according to charging documents.

The fires included a barn near Boonsboro, a garage, several vehicles, plastic trash cans and other smaller fires.

At the time of Murray’s arrest in April, Sheriff Douglas W. Mullendore said he helped break the case with a call to the sheriff’s office.

Murray called to file a complaint that someone had tried to break into his vehicle and set his trash can on fire.

But when a deputy arrived, he noticed a stencil that read: “State Fire Marshal (Ed) Ernst, catch me if you can,” lying in the grass in plain view.

The stencil was consistent with words that were painted with black spray paint, defacing the hood of a Toyota Camry parked in the area where the first of the related fires originated on March 17.

Murray and the other co-defendants have criminal motions hearings scheduled in circuit court on Sept. 9, court records said.

Sneider-Koontz, 19, of Knob Road, Mercersburg, Pa., is charged with 33 offenses related to the arson spree.

The others charged in the arsons include:

  • Morgan Nield, 20, of Spade Road, Hagerstown, 79 counts.
  • Joshua Ryan Hess, Old National Pike, Clear Spring, Jacob Hess’s brother, 33 counts.
  • Sarah Couch, 18, of Tea Drive, Mercersburg, Pa., 21 counts.
  • Sarah Camille Mathews, 20, of Morland Drive, Adamstown, Md., five counts.
  • Olivia Hannah, 20, of Hundle Hill Court, Frederick, Md., three counts.

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