Huntingdon County President Judge George Zanic set a Jan. 31 deadline for the district attorney’s office to turn over discovery materials or lose the ability to refer to any evidence contained within those materials moving forward in their prosecution of a man facing charges connected to a house fire in Mount Union.
During Thursday’s court session, Huntingdon County Chief Public Defender Fred Gutshall asked the court to quash the commonwealth’s case again Samuel Sellers on grounds not all discovery materials have been made available for his client’s defense. Gutshall said he’s waited six months for delivery of statements made by firefighters on the scene of the July 21 incident and called the duration of the wait “inappropriate.”
Sellers, 40, is charged with aggravated assault, making terroristic threats and recklessly endangering another person. According to the affidavit prepared by Mount Union Police Department officer Jonathan Marsh, Sellers told authorities he fell asleep in bed with a cigarette which caught nearby boxes on fire and that his attempt to quench the fire with water from the tub weren’t successful. Marsh’s report also stated Sellers’ mother, Ruth, said the defendant threatened to set fire to their home leading up to the incident and that he prevented her from calling 911 by throwing her phone against a wall.
District Attorney David Smith called to the stand two witnesses — Mount Union Fire Department lieutenant Phillip Miner and Mount Union Police Department officer Eric Burnett — to testify about their first-hand experiences on the scene at 2211 W. Davis St. where the defendant lived with his mother.
Minor said the defendant, on several occasions, attempted to interfere with responders’ efforts to control the fire which started in an upstairs bedroom. He said Sellers discouraged them from entering the structure, then, as they were making their way upstairs with a hose, Miner said he and his crew realized there was some resistance on the other end and investigated.
“Sellers was laying on the line with his arms wrapped around it,” Minor said. He continued, that because smoke and gas were accumulating and heat was on the rise, he was concerned about how much time his crew had left before they suffered a “flash over” effect — which he described as the point at which the gas ignites
“We could have gotten severely hurt,” he said.
“You can’t fight fire without water,” Zanic said. “Your water supply was cut and it placed you in danger.” Miner confirmed those were his concerns.
Gutshall asked Miner if the fire department has a report on the fire and whether the the DA’s office requested the report; Miner said there is a report but he’s not sure if was supplied to the DA’s office; he noted it could be retrieved. Gutshall also asked if other responding companies would have reports as well. Minor said they would and noted Netwon-Wayne, Mapleton, Huntingdon Regional, Three Springs, Orbisonia-Rockhill, Alexandria, Smithfield fire companies all responded to the fire.
Miner testified that he and his crew ultimately made it up the stairs and into the bedroom, and brought the fire under control.
He said the Mount Union department should have a total of three reports connected to the fire: one for the original blaze and one each for the subsequent rekindles which required department action.
Burnett took the stand and talked about his interview with Ruth Sellers, the defendant’s mother, and relayed that she and her son argued prior to the start of the fire.
“She was very shaken, very emotional,” Burnett told the court. “She said he’d threatened her, called her derogatory names and threatened to choke and punch her.” Burnett said she also told him her son threatened to burn down the house.
Gutshall told the court he preferred to hear directly from Ruth Sellers herself and asked for Burnett’s testimony to be striken; Zanic denied the request.
As the close of the hearing, Zanic scheduled a hearing for a suppression motion at Gutshall’s request. In preparation for the hearing, Zanic ordered the DA’s office to provide all discovery material on or before Jan. 31.
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