UPDATE: Rimersburg Man Accused in Old Porter Twp. Elementary Blaze Calls Fire ‘An Act of God’

| January 27, 2018

CLARION CO., Pa. (EYT) – New details have emerged in the case against a Rimersburg man accused of setting an abandoned building on fire last summer in Porter Township, Clarion County.

Pennsylvania State Police Fire Marshal Russell D. Stewart filed arson and other related charges Friday against 57-year-old Nelson Keith Byers.

The charges, filed at Magisterial District Judge Jeffrey C. Miller’s office, stem from a structure fire the occurred around 7:00 p.m. on September 5, 2017, at the former Porter Township Elementary School in the area of 1200 Rockville Road just off Curllsville Road.

Court documents detailing the accusations indicate that Byers put his neighbors and firefighters from Distant, Hawthorn, Limestone, and New Bethlehem in danger of death or bodily injury by intentionally setting the fire.

The two-story block wall building, which is owned by Byers, has been abandoned for several years.

Fire Marshal Called to Scene

According to a criminal complaint filed at Judge Miller’s office, Stewart was called to the scene around 11:05 p.m. on the day of the fire by New Bethlehem Volunteer Fire Chief Barry Fox.

Stewart said the entire structure was damaged by areas of heavy fire. The roof also sustained heat and fire damage, causing it to collapse into the structure.

At that time, he was unable to examine every room of the structure due to the heavy fire and heat damage.

“I was unable to gain any further access into the structure due to safety issues of unstable material,” said Stewart in the criminal complaint.

The building was ruled a complete loss.

It was not insured, according to Byers.

Chief Fox Interviewed

Chief Fox informed Stewart that the structure had been damaged by fire in 2015 and the owner, Byers, had attempted to stop New Bethlehem Volunteer Fire Department from extinguishing it.

Byers allegedly told firefighters on scene to “let the structure burn” and advised them that they weren’t permitted to be on his property.

“I ignored Byers and extinguished the fire,” said Fox during the interview.

12360047_1063274203716885_7829686970768630456_n-3[Photo taken during a 2015 fire at the former Porter Twp. Elementary School. Courtesy New Bethlehem Volunteer Fire Company.]

Neighbors Interviewed by Fire Marshal

According to the criminal complaint, Stewart spoke with two of Byers’ neighbors that night.

One neighbor told Stewart that Byers set the building on fire around 7:00 a.m. He said Byers was “burning all day” and embers from the fire were falling on his house and trees.

The man told Stewart that Byers “burns trash, trees, and papers all the time.”

He told Stewart that he saw flames in the rear of the structure around 7:00 a.m.

He said it got to the point where he “could not stand the smoke” and had to go for a drive around 3:00 p.m. to get away from it.

When the man returned around 6:45 p.m., he observed smoke in the front and middle portions of the structure.

At one point, “flames were shooting up in the air approximately 30 feet to 40 feet, and the embers were at least 50 feet in the air,” according to the man.

The man told Stewart that he saw Byers leaving the property around 7:50 p.m.

Another neighbor told Stewart that she saw Byers and an unknown female near the front of the building “looking at the structure as white billowing smoke was pouring up into the atmosphere.”

She said Byers and the female walked towards the road shortly before 8:00 p.m. Moments later, she saw a blue pickup truck travel west on Rockville Road, according to the criminal complaint.

Court documents indicate that Byers operates a blue pickup truck.

Shortly after 8:00 p.m., the woman said she could see flames “shooting up out of the building.”

A short time later, another neighbor called Clarion County 9-1-1 and New Bethlehem Volunteer Fire Department was dispatched.

When Stewart asked the neighbors, who were first interviewed, why they felt they should wait to call 9-1-1, both said Byers is the type of neighbor who intimidates others, and they try to avoid him.

Fire Ruled Arson

Following further investigation and consideration of several scenarios, Stewart ruled the fire arson.

Throughout the course of the investigation, several other possible causes were examined including lightning, static electricity, vagrants, public utilities, and spontaneous combustion.

All of the above causes were ruled out by Stewart, according to the criminal complaint.

“Based upon the scene examination and information, this fire originated at the area near the center of the front of the building,” said Stewart in the criminal complaint. “The cause of this fire was an intentional act which constituted the crime of arson.”

Byers Interviewed by Fire Marshal

During a September 7 interview conducted by Stewart at the Clarion-based State Police barracks, Byers declined to submit to a recorded interview but agreed to answer a series of questions about the incident.

Several times throughout the interview, Byers denied setting the fire with the intention of burning the building down.

When asked if he set the fire, Byers replied, “I did start a fire, but not to burn the building down. Just to burn items.”

Byers told Stewart he left the property around 11:15 a.m. and then returned a few times in the afternoon.

In response to Stewart’s inquiry about whether he would “be okay with the building burning,” Byers said he was “upset the right side of the building burnt but was OK with the rest burning.”

“Just been a headache trying to get it cleaned up,” Byers continued.

Stewart also asked Byers if he ever thought about “burning the building” to which Byers responded, “No.”

When Stewart asked if Byers had an opinion on the cause of the fire, he replied “(An) Act of God”

Stewart then asked Byers if he would submit to a polygraph if asked to do so, and Byers said, “yes,” indicating that he thought the results of the test would “good.”

A full copy of the interview is provided below.

Charges Filed, Court Date Set

Byers was taken into custody on Friday, January 26, and arraigned at 9:30 a.m. before Judge Miller on the following charges:

  • Arson-Danger Of Death Or Bodily Injury, Felony 1
  • Arson Endangering Property-Reckless Endangerment of Inhabited Buildings, Felony 2
  • Dangerous Burning, Summary

A preliminary hearing is slated for February 6 at 1:30 p.m. before Judge Miller.

Byers is free on $35,000.00 unsecured bail.

*EDITOR’S NOTE: A transcript of the September 7 interview with Nelson Byers is provided below. Responses containing personal and confidential information were not included.

Describe your personal automobile. 1987 Ford Truck, blue in color.

Learned of the fire? Time? Approximately 9:00 p.m.

Learned of the fire? How? Daughter.

Where were you when you learned of the fire? Rimersburg residence.

Why didn’t you return to the scene after you learned? Felt it would be unsafe.

Last time in premises? 11:15 a.m. – I left the property and returned a few times that afternoon.

Anyone with you at that time? No.

Anyone remain on premises? No.

Where did you go after leaving the building? House at lunchtime, watched the news, went to get gas in New Bethlehem, then returned to the building (scene.)

Were there any utilities to the building? No, all gas and electric was disconnected years ago.

Any opinion as the cause of the fire? Act of God.

Experienced any other fire loses? 2015

Any arrests or convictions? No

Insurance Policy on the property? No

Mr. Byers if the fire was intentionally started, did you set it? I did start a fire, but not to burn the building down. Just to burn items.

Why would you be ok with the building burning? Was upset the right side of the building burnt but was ok with the rest burning. Just been a headache trying to get it cleaned up.

Is there any reason that you can think of that someone would name you as the suspect? None.

Is there anyone you know well enough that you feel is above suspicion and would not have set the fire? None.

How do you feel about being interviewed concerning the fire? No concerns.

Why do you think that people are saying that you started the fire? I burn materials there all the time. But I don’t burn the materials to burn down the building.

Did you ever think about burning your building even though you didn’t go through with it? No.

What do you think should happen to a person who would set a fire of this magnitude? No comment.

Do you think the person who did this deserves a second chance under any circumstances? Yes, even if it is incendiary or an accidental fire.

Tell me why you wouldn’t do something like this? I was just burning stuff to clean up.

How do you think the results of this investigation will come out for you? Hoping.

If you were ever given a polygraph test, what would the results be? Good.

Would you be willing to take a polygraph test? Yes.

Is there any reason why … I’m not saying you did this but would light the fire? No, other than to clean it up.

Have you ever been questioned about doing something like this before? No.

Did anyone tell you they suspected anyone? No.

Did anyone ask you if you did this? No.

What were you burning? Wood materials.

How long ago did you purchase the property? 1987-1988.

What is the roof made of? Half Lap/Asphalt/Flat Roof.

Why did you turn off all the utilities? I couldn’t afford to heat the property. I shut off the electric and gas.

You said you were burning wood materials? Where? Inside the building, in the rear. The fire was out at 11:15 a.m.

When did you shut off the electric and gas to the property? Shortly after I purchased the property.

Did you use anything to help ignite the fire? I didn’t use gas or any other accelerant.

Did you make sure the fire was out prior to leaving? I made sure by putting sand and plaster on top of the fire. Prior to leaving. There were no flames just smoke.

What time did you leave the property and not return? 7:30 p.m.

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