Arsonist: Attorney forced plea deal

HOLLIDAYSBURG – An Altoona man in a state correctional institution for arson said Friday he wants to withdraw a guilty plea he entered more than two years ago because his former attorney scared him into accepting an plea deal.

Timothy Allen Hughes was charged in 2011 with a Father’s Day arson that burned down one home and damaged two others on the 100 block of Third Avenue, causing $500,000 damage. Hughes said the assistant public defender who represented him in the case told him that if he went to trial and lost, the trial judge, Daniel J. Milliron, a former Altoona mayor, would give him the maximum sentence, which would have meant a minimum of about 12 years behind bars.

Hughes said he agreed to accept a plea agreement for a two-to six-year sentence, plus 10 years’ probation but that he did so, only because he was frightened.

Now the 33-year-old Hughes is declaring his innocence and wants a new trial.

Assistant District Attorney Jackie Bernard asked Milliron to toss out Hughes’ request, contending that when Hughes admitted to the charges against him in 2010, he was competent and aware of the facts the prosecution was to present at trial.

“He was aware of what he was doing,” Bernard argued Friday morning during a hearing before Milliron.One of the points Bernard brought out was that Hughes’ minimum, a two-year sentence, has expired but that he was refused parole by the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole.

Hughes testified he didn’t receive parole on his first appearance before the board because the prosecution and Milliron opposed his release.

Police maintained the Father’s Day fire occurred when Hughes and a friend entered 106 Third Ave. to burglarize the home. According to the prosecution’s case, Hughes set fire to a sofa, and the home was destroyed.

The fire spread to homes on either side, 104 and 108 Third Ave., that were owned by Guwain Engle and his Duncansville-based company, Engle Properties.

Hughes appeared before the judge Friday morning from a room at the State Correctional Institution at Houtzdale.

The videoconference took about an hour as Hughes and his trial attorney, veteran Assistant Public Defender Ted Krol, testified.

Hughes said Krol told him there were numerous witnesses including his alleged accomplice against him, which Hughes now says was misleading.

He claimed Krol should have filed a request to suppress the statement given to police by the alleged accomplice because the accomplice told several versions of what occurred that night.

Paul Puskar, Hughes’ appeal attorney, asked him to explain his assertion that his guilty plea was “coerced.”

Hughes said it occurred when he claimed Krol told him he could receive a tough sentence from Milliron because of the judge’s former status as city mayor.

“It ultimately scared … me so I (pleaded guilty). I did not want to take the risk of a maximum sentence,” stated Hughes.

“I have to disagree with Mr. Hughes regarding coercion,” Krol said.

He said Hughes admitted to being at the scene of the fire. He admitted taking property, and he said Hughes told him if he was offered a two-year minimum, he would plead guilty.

Krol said he never mentioned Milliron but did tell Hughes he would likely do more than two years if he was convicted of the 15 charges against him.

Hughes ended up pleading to only one of the charges, arson, and Krol said it was a “rational decision to take the offer.”

Milliron said he will issue a decision on Hughes’ request after he has a chance to study a transcript of the Friday’s hearing.

In addition to Hughes’ appeal, the fire is at the heart of a civil lawsuit.

A year ago, Engle and tenants in one of the destroyed homes filed a civil lawsuit against Terri and Craig Rosenthal of Virginia, who owned the 106 Third Ave. home.

The plaintiffs argue that the Rosenthals did not reside in the home and left it unattended for long periods of time – thereby making it an attraction to an arsonist.

The Rosenthals contend that the home was full of family items, that relatives lived in the home at various times and that it was not a neglected property.