Neal: Charges are not an indictment of firefighters
PUNXSUTAWNEY — Thursday, state police formally announced charges against a teenage member of the Big Run Area Volunteer Fire Company stemming from an Aug. 9 fire in Big Run, and said he has also been implicated in several other fires dating back to 2010.
Officials from PSP-Punxsutawney and the district attorney noted, however, that charges filed against Anthony M. Overbeck, 18, Big Run, are not an indictment of other firefighters.
“I’ve worked in the emergency services arena for 25 years hand-in-hand with these volunteer firemen,” Capt. Scott A. Neal, commanding officer of Troop C, said during a press conference Thursday. “Ninety-nine percent of them are great, service-oriented people.
“We can’t exist in a rural area without them,” he said. “They put themselves at great risk every time they fight a fire, and they’re not getting paid for it. They get very upset when one of their own gets arrested for something like this, just like we (state police) get upset when one of our officers is arrested, and the media write the headlines, ‘Fireman or policeman gets arrested.’”
Thursday, Trooper Jamie K. Levier, public information officer for Troop C, said Overbeck is charged with a number of crimes — including arson and related offenses, burglary and criminal trespass — in
connection with Tuesday’s fire at an unoccupied residence on Pennsylvania Avenue, Big Run.
District Attorney Jeffrey Burkett said more charges will be filed against Overbeck, who was a member of the Big Run department since only January.
“The future paperwork that will be filed on those other offenses will make it clear,” he said.
Burkett noted it’s a “dark day” when a firefighter is charged with arson.
“One of the reasons that it’s a dark day is because there are so many men and women who selflessly volunteer their time and get called out in the middle of the night constantly, and do it all for us,” he said.
“They take a hit when something like this happens, and that’s not fair, because they are good, good people.”
Although he prosecuted several arson cases against five members of the Brookville Volunteer Fire Company in 2004, Burkett said, “My interactions with the fire department members who were not involved with the fires were completely positive. They were good people, and they didn’t like this any more than anyone else does.”
Levier said that the state police fire marshal has been investigating a string of fires throughout the Big Run area since September 2010 — about 10 fires, added Bernard P. Petrovsky, Troop C Criminal Investigation section commander.
Levier also said at this time, police could not discuss Overbeck’s motive for allegedly setting the Pennsylvania Avenue fire.
“That is something we’re developing as the investigation continues on,” Levier said.
“We can’t dig into how we discovered it was Overbeck. We developed information through a lengthy and complex investigation that turned him up as the lead suspect.”
Neal said investigators are confident that Overbeck is the main individual behind a majority of the fires over the last several months.
When asked if Overbeck had confessed to setting all the fires, Burkett said rules of professional conduct prohibited him from discussing confessions.
“We’ll always point you (media) to the affidavit of probable cause to see if there’s anything in there regarding confessions,” he said.
Neal said affidavits regarding additional charges will go into much more detail.
“The reason we wanted to get the word out today was to hopefully put the citizens of the Big Run area somewhat at ease over the recent string of fires,” he said. “I know there was a lot of apprehension building up in that area.”
Neal said the investigation is ongoing, but police haven’t ruled out the possibility that there may have been another person or persons involved in some of the other fires.
“We believe that Mr. Overbeck acted alone in the majority of the fires. However, we are examining the possibility that there may have been other people involved in a handful of the other fires,” Neal said, adding that hadn’t been substantiated as of yet, and is part of the ongoing investigation.
A preliminary hearing for Overbeck — who is being held in the Jefferson County jail on $200,000 bail — is scheduled for Aug. 23 before District Judge Douglas Chambers.
Neal said it has been a busy and frustrating few months for Fire Marshal Cpl. Charles Gross and the other Troop C investigating officers.
“It was frustrating for us from just sitting here and reading the remarks of the citizens of Big Run in the newspaper, and the level of anxiety was really starting to rise up there,” Neal said. “Chuck and the ATF and the other fire marshal personnel here worked extremely hard on this case for the last several months, and it was pretty much taking up all of their time.”
Big Run Mayor Joseph Buterbaugh said there’s a tremendous amount of relief among Big Run residents now that an arrest has been made in connection with the Pennsylvania Avenue fire and possibly others.
“Hopefully, this will put an end to this, and the people can rest easier now,” he said.
“I ask my fellow citizens to keep up watching, because of all of the drug activity, in addition to the fire activity, and keep an eye on any strange people that may be seen in town, and keep watch on your neighbors’ homes.”
Levier said anyone who may have witnessed anything, or is aware of something that could help the investigation, should contact PSP-Punxsy at 938-0510.