Six-time arsonist faces prison sentence

BEDFORD – Wade Rhodes, the 26-year-old leader of an alleged Bedford County arson ring, faces at least eight years in prison after he pleaded guilty Monday to setting six buildings alight.

Rhodes, of Martinsburg, led a circle of six friends in a series of arsons across northern and eastern Bedford County in 2011 and 2012. The group’s members, who each participated in occasional arsons with Rhodes, the only common denominator, started fires in barns, an empty house and Breezewood’s abandoned Penn Aire Motel.

One arson at a farm caused more than $1 million in damage, Bedford County District Attorney Bill Higgins said Tuesday.

No one was hurt in the fires.

Rhodes’ guilty plea was issued quickly Monday, without speeches from victims or lengthy messages, Higgins said.

Until then, Rhodes had remained defiant in the case: His attorney, George W. Bills Jr. of Pittsburgh, had shown a willingness to fight the scores of Bedford arson charges after a Blair County judge dismissed similar accusations last year involving a fire at Rhodes’ family’s Martinsburg meat market.

At the time, Magisterial District Judge Craig Ormsby compared the charges – arson without a conclusive fire investigation – to a murder charge without a dead body.

But the Bedford County fires were ruled as arsons, and as Rhodes’ cohorts pleaded guilty one by one, the charges appeared increasingly difficult to fight.

“They were all prepared to cooperate and testify,” Higgins said of Rhodes’ friends: Donald Leo Stevey of Clearville, Dillon Fornwalt of Everett, Charles Swankler of Hopewell Township, Cory Divelbiss of Everett, Keagan Parks of Washington state and Misty Hafer of Everett.

Rhodes’ accomplices face varying sentences, from three months to more than seven years.

During a police investigation, Rhodes had allegedly admitted his guilt to two state troopers at his home. His attorney sought unsuccessfully to have the evidence suppressed on the basis that they’d coerced Rhodes to speak.

Rhodes pleaded guilty Monday to one arson charge for each case, leaving dozens more arson charges dropped. His sentencing, set for March 22, will likely end in an eight- to 16-year state prison sentence, Higgins said.

The sentence will also include restitution for the arsons’ extensive damage, he said.

Rhodes’ attorney did not return a phone message seeking comment Tuesday.