By Keith Gushard
Boredom and stress.
Authorities say those were the reasons 20-year-old Brandon Irwin of 13211 Laurel Drive, Apt. 1351, set a fire last week at a Meadville-area apartment complex, according to an alleged confession after hours of police questioning.
Irwin, a tenant of the Northgate Apartments complex, was arrested Monday morning by West Mead Township police on a total of three felonies for the March 11 fire that displaced 12 residents, destroyed a 10-unit three-story apartment building and led to $1 million in damage. The apartment, townhouse and housing complex is near Route 77 and Leslie Road in West Mead Township, about a mile east of Meadville.
Irwin was taken into custody Monday at the Quality Inn of Meadville. He and the other Northgate residents displaced by the fire have been staying at the motel with the assistance of the American Red Cross.
All 12 residents in the apartment building at the time of the 4:30 a.m. fire exited safely. One fireman, however, was injured by falling debris in fighting the fire, according to the affidavit of probable cause filed with the charges. Eight of the 10 apartments in the building were occupied at the time of the blaze.
Irwin was arraigned late Monday morning before Magisterial District Judge William Chisholm on three counts — arson endangering persons, a first-degree felony; arson endangering property, a second-degree felony; and criminal mischief, a third-degree felony.
Irwin’s arrest was the result of a joint investigation by West Mead Township Sgt. Michael Broderick and Trooper Ken Hamilton, a Pennsylvania State Police fire marshal, according to Chief Chip Brown of West Mead Township Police Department.
The investigation found the fire began in Irwin’s apartment and was suspicious in origin, Brown said.
The blaze was ruled an arson and Irwin was a suspect in the case due to inconsistent statements given by Irwin along with evidence collected at the scene, Brown said. During a subsequent interview with police, Irwin eventually confessed to setting the fire, Brown said.
Nancy Mangilo-Bittner, office manager for Meadville Housing Corp., owner of the Northgate complex, had limited comments following Monday’s arrest.
“It’s sad that it happened and it’s been an unfortunate situation,” Mangilo-Bittner said of the blaze. “We were stunned by the fire. We’re concerned with our tenants and getting them to where they want to be.”
Mangilo-Bittner said it is unknown at this point whether the building may be repaired or replaced.
According to the arrest affidavit, Irwin gave several versions of what happened in two interviews with police. One interview was the day of the fire and other was the following day, according to the affidavit.
“During the course of this second interview, Irwin again gave several different versions of his actions that evening in relation to how the fire was started,” the affidavit states. “Ultimately after several hours, Irwin stated that he was ‘bored’ and ‘stressed’ over certain aspects that were transpiring in his life at that moment in time the morning of March 11, 2014.”
“Thus, Irwin stated that due to him being ‘bored’ and ‘stressed,’ Irwin had ignited a loose piece of paper with a flicktop cigarette lighter in his apartment, while he was in the kitchen area,” the affidavit states. “Once the loose sheet of paper was ignited, Irwin then stated he walked into his dining room and dropped the lit piece of paper into a cardboard box full of other loose papers and files as he believed it would relieve all of his stress.”
“Irwin stated the fire in the cardboard box then got out of control and was ‘too much’ for him to extinguish, ultimately causing the total loss of the building,” according to the affidavit.
Under questioning by Chisholm during his 15-minute arraignment, Irwin said he has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, has a bipolar disorder, and a learning disability. Irwin said he takes no medication for his illnesses.
Irwin told Chisholm he is currently on probation in Crawford County for a theft case for taking money from a Kwik Fill gas station. As of Monday, Irwin had paid $20 toward a total of $1,891.62 in fines, costs and restitution imposed in the theft case, according to court records.
In August 2012, Irwin pleaded guilty in Crawford County court to a charge of theft by unlawful taking filed by Meadville Police Department, according to court records. Irwin was sentenced by Judge John Spataro to serve 14 days to 12 months in county jail with 12 months probation for the theft.
Irwin also was ordered by Spataro to pay a total of $1,891.62 in fines, costs and restitution — $231.12 in restitution to United Refining Co., a $300 fine and $1,360.50 in court costs, according to court records.
Irwin is scheduled to have a preliminary hearing on the arson charges March 28. Following arraignment, Irwin was placed in the Crawford County jail in Saegertown in lieu of $150,000 bond.
If convicted in Crawford County Court of Common Pleas on all counts, Irwin faces up to 37 years in prison and $65,000 in fines.