Hot-button topic

It’s been nearly two years since an arson fire destroyed several homes in the 100 block of Third Avenue.

The early morning blaze on Father’s Day 2011 endangered the lives of Jody Weimer; his wife, Stacy; their unborn child; and Terry Green, all tenants of 104 Third Ave., a property owned by Guwain and Leona Engle, of Duncansville.

It drove Joseph Toomey, his wife and two grandchildren from their home at 108 Third Ave.

And within minutes, it turned 106 Third Ave., where the fire was set, into a charred, dark mass of wood and metal. That vacant home was owned by Terri and Craig Rosenthal of Leesburg, Va.

The ongoing tumult in the two years since has turned neighbor against neighbor and resulted in the filing of an unusual lawsuit in the Blair County Court of Common Pleas.

Guwain Engle, the owner of Engle Properties of Duncansville, owns 50 rental dwellings in the city.

He contends, through a lawsuit filed in Blair County in mid-March, that the Rosenthal home was just the type of dwelling an arsonist looks for. The home had no lights at night, no signs of occupancy and an unkempt lawn and shrubbery, he charges.

He stated that the Rosenthals were responsible for attracting the arsonist to the home due to their negligence and that “created a foreseeable and unreasonable risk of harm to [his] property.”

Engle was straightforward in an interview at home last week, saying he has spent a lot of money for an attorney and a private investigator in preparation for filing the lawsuit.

“I’m out a lot of money due to their negligence,” he said.

While he received an insurance settlement, he said the 104 Third Ave. property was yielding almost $1,000 a month in rent and would have done so for many years.

The lawsuit, filed by Altoona attorney A. Thomas Farrell, is asking damages in excess of $50,000 on that count alone.

In addition, it is asking in excess of $50,000 on a civil charge of negligence.

Engle’s tenants have joined the lawsuit: Weimer and his wife are asking $9,900 for their lost possessions, and Green is seeking $5,900.

Since the fire, Joseph Toomey sold the property at 108 Third Ave. to Engle for $14,000.

“The whole thing is absolutely absurd,” said Terri Rosenthal, who owned her Third Avenue home for 25 years, and who, during a court hearing last year on the arson case, fondly remembered Altoona as the “City of Porches.”

She talked about how she used to go from back porch to back porch, talking to her neighbors.

Over time, various relatives lived in the home, and at the time the fire was set, she and other family members were fixing it up for use by a niece.

She said new wiring had cost thousands of dollars and a great deal of inside work had been done.

It was not an abandoned home, she said.

But what once was a friendly neighborhood was no longer so. Neighbors, she said, would put garbage in her backyard.

Rosenthal, who described herself as a “tiny little clothes designer,” admits to working hard seven days a week and said she and her husband have been successful in business.

She said her property was underinsured, and that she too lost a lot in the fire.

For example, she had a library in the home containing hundreds of books. She said she would sometimes come to Altoona just to read. She received no reimbursement for the lost books.

When she recently visited family in town and someone suggested they go look at the old property, she said she became physically ill. The house is now gone, and a grassy expanse covers the lots where the houses once stood.

Rosenthal said she can’t understand the lawsuit. She feels that she, as the victim of an arsonist, is being revictimized.

“I have one golden rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated yourself. I would never, ever dream about doing this to my neighbors,” she said.

The arsonist

The man who is not being sued for the Father’s Day fire is 32-year-old Timothy Allen Hughes, who is serving time after agreeing to a plea bargain for the arson.

Hughes lived with his paramour and children at 103 Third Ave., a small, remodeled house just across the street from the Rosenthal home.

He was suspected of several arsons in the city during that time, but in the early morning hours the day of the fire, when the world seemed to explode for his neighbors, Hughes for a brief period of time seemed like a hero.

Hughes said he knew there were adults and children in the Toomey home and he went there and tried to kick down a door, to warn the family.

He said his main concern was making sure the children got out, but the Toomey family had already escaped.

Linda Toomey knew something was wrong and shouted, “Joe! Fire! Get out!

On the other side of the Rosenthal home was Stacy Laird, Weimer’s wife, pregnant with a son, Adryan, who was born shortly thereafter. Laird heard a cracking noise and was able to get her husband and Green, a fellow tenant, out.

The day of the fire, Joe Toomey was certain someone had “torched” the house next door. Investigators were in luck, thanks to security equipment, including a camera, Engle had installed on his home at 104 Third Ave.

Court records show that Hughes and another man made their way across the street and then later went back to the Rosenthal home. They could be seen on tape emerging with vinyl records and comic books, items police knew had been stored in the home at 106 Third Ave.

A subsequent search warrant turned up the items in Hughes’ home.

In addition, Chris Latocha, the man who had been with Hughes that morning, approached police and reported that he and Hughes had gone to the Rosenthal home to case it and then returned to steal items.

It was on the second trip while the pair was attempting to take things that he looked around and saw Hughes ignite a cushion on a sofa. That was a sofa that Terri Rosenthal said had been brought there by the niece who was to move in.

Engle said he believed that one of the men had lost a cellphone on the trips to the home and that Hughes set it on fire so police wouldn’t find the phone and extract fingerprints.

Latocha told police what occurred because he feared that Hughes would eventually blame him for the extensive fire that destroyed nearly half a block.

When it came time for trial, Hughes’ attorney, Assistant Public Defender Theodore Krol, and the prosecutions agreed to a plea bargain. Hughes pleaded to one count of arson and four counts of risking a catastrophe.

Blair County Judge Daniel J. Milliron imposed a sentence of two to six years in state prison.

When Hughes agreed to the plea deal, Milliron sentenced him immediately, but then held an unusual second hearing a few weeks later, on May 22, 2012, in which he gave the victims a chance to express themselves.

At the hearing, Weimer showed Hughes his 10-month-old son and asked him, “Would you have done this if it had been your child in there?”

Terri Rosenthal called Hughes a bad neighbor and “an axis of terror.”

Engle was even more expressive: “Mr. Hughes, you are an arsonist. Mr. Hughes, you are a thief. Mr. Hughes, you are a terrorist.”

Milliron ordered Hughes to pay $523,000 in restitution, including $384,000 to three insurance companies and the rest directly to the victims. But, Hughes, now incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Houtzdale, is in no position to pay restitution. And as Weimer said, his family has not been financially restored.

The same story goes for the Rosenthals and Engle.

If there is unrest among the victims, Hughes himself is now loudly proclaiming his innocence.

Milliron on May 17 appointed appeals attorney Timothy Burns to represent Hughes in claims that his guilty pleas were “unlawfully induced.”

Hughes is complaining his trial attorney didn’t investigate the case.

“I also was scared into taking a plea bargain by my attorney,” he said in the post-conviction petition filed in May.

An emotional issue

On a sunny mid-spring day, there is noting but brilliant green grass covering the site of the tragic fire from two years ago. It runs up against 110 Third Ave., which Engle said he owns and which is occupied by a family with children. Multiple toys dot the landscape.

At 100 Third Ave. sits a popular eating establishment, Luigetta’s. Across the street is Roll’s Meat Market, and on the third corner of the intersection is a well-kept residential home, just two doors from where Tim Hughes lived.

Brody McCaulley, a butcher at Roll’s, said there used to be a lot of vandalism in the neighborhood, a lot of spray-painting.

The neighborhood, he said, “can be rough at times,” but he insisted that things are beginning to change.

“It’s been a little better lately,” he said.

The neighborhood is a lot like other city neighborhoods and as Terri Rosenthal insisted, it was a very nice place to be in the past.

The Altoona Fire Department fire inspector, Tim Hughes – no relation to the convicted arsonist – pointed out there are vacant homes all over the city and that arson is a problem year after year.

From 2009 through 2012, his office investigated 310 fires and designated 83 of them as “incendiary,” or what the average person would consider arson fires.

An incendiary fire, he defined, is one in which a person ignites a fire he knows should not have been ignited.

Hughes, who was a captain on duty the morning of the Rosenthal fire, said he remembers it.

“It was pretty bad,” he said.

When presented with the idea that the Rosenthals may be responsible for damage to other homes in the fire because their home was not occupied at the time, he said he wasn’t familiar with such an argument.

“I don’t think the condition of the property played a role,” he said, after thinking about the situation.

He said if arsonists want to set a fire, they’ll find a place to set a fire. He said there are also arsons at occupied homes.

Hughes said some homes are set on fire and the city can’t even find an owner.

Engle, however, is convinced that the condition of the Rosenthal home enticed an arsonist to set it on fire and as a result he and others have lost a lot of money.

He believes a guy like Hughes, with a propensity toward arson, sat on his porch and watched and watched the home. He said it was an “open invitation” to burglars and to people like Hughes.

Engle said that owning property was a lifelong dream of his. He worked a couple of jobs and saved the money to buy a few properties – 104 Third Ave. being among his first investments.

He described himself as “retired,” but his cellphone was in constant use during an interview as he received calls dealing with his rental business.

His properties, he explained, are the key to his long-term finances.

Engle said he is active in the community and pointed out he believes he is the only landlord who throws a party, with a band, for his tenants each year.

Terri Rosenthal said the issue comes down to one of “property rights.”

She concluded what Engle and the others are saying is that if she is not in her home 24 hours a day, seven days a week, she is inviting people to come and burglarize and set fire to her home.

She worked in New York and had to go there during the weekdays. She asks, “Is this an invitation?”

What about people in the military who are often routed to foreign lands for a year or more and have to leave their home vacant for a time?

Or older people who go into a nursing facility and leave their homes vacant?

Are those situations an invitation for someone to burglarize and burn it, she wondered.

How about people on vacation, who leave their homes vacant? “Are they too inviting in an arsonist to burn it?” Rosenthal continued.

And finally, in this economy, some people have had to move out of their homes, leaving them vacant.

“We are the victim!” she said, with emphasis. “Who are my neighbors to tell me I have to live in my property 24/7? It’s an upsetting lawsuit.”

According to court papers, Pittsburgh attorney Jeffrey M. Olszewski is representing the Rosenthals in the lawsuit.

Neither Farrell nor Olszewski returned calls for comment on the lawsuit.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.