Accused arsonist called troubled
An Altoona man who police say set fire to his West Chestnut Avenue home over the weekend is troubled, according to family and friends who gathered outside the gutted and charred house on Monday.
Jerret T. Aungst, 37, allegedly set fire to 3816 W. Chestnut Ave. about 3:45 a.m. Sunday and was then found parked in a car in the parking lot at the PennDOT building on North Juniata Street in Hollidaysburg with a rosebud torch attached to a propane tank in the back seat. An aerosol can with burn marks around the nozzle was on the passenger seat of the car, as well.
Several friends and family members who were outside the burned home, and who did not wish to give their names, said Monday that Aungst has been struggling in the past year, having been through a divorce while battling drug use and dealing with mental health problems.
According to charges filed by state and Altoona police, Aungst told state troopers who encountered him outside the PennDOT facilities, where he is employed as a machine operator, that he “acted in an agitated, paranoid manner, speaking about being followed by two people.” While speaking with police about the events of the night, Aungst “claimed to be ‘lost’ by the questioning.”
It started about when Altoona firefighters were called to a fully-involved house fire that damaged homes on both sides at 3816-3820 W. Chestnut Ave.
Bridget Hammel, who lives next door with her husband, Christopher, and the couple’s 3-month-old son, Colton, said she awoke to what sounded like an ATV — which she said wasn’t uncommon in the neighborhood.
“Then I heard a loud bang noise I thought was thunder,” Hammel said, adding she was trying to get the family dog to settle down and stop barking when she realized it wasn’t thunder.
“I looked out our window and it was bright orange — like daylight,” the 32-year-old Hammel said.
Grabbing the baby, the couple ran from their house. Its siding was melted away by the flames.
Altoona police credited the quick work of the Altoona Fire Department in keeping the Hammel home at 3820 W. Chestnut Ave., and the house at 3814, from burning.
Hammel said once the family was outside, they heard a second, louder explosion — what she said she thought was a propane tank.
Altoona police said that Altoona Fire Inspector Adam Free determined the fire was started on the outside of the home, on the edge of the front porch, near what remained of a gas grill.
Police said Aungst told investigators he “had been struggling with a drug addiction and had recently been divorced,” Altoona police Patrolman William Hanelly Jr. wrote in the charges. “For this and other reasons, the residence contained a lot of bad memories for him, and he admitted being at the residence before the fire, stating that he had just turned the gas grill on the porch on and walked away.”
Police noted two containers of an unspecified accelerant were found on the ground beside the porch.
The rosebud torch found in the car with Aungst was allegedly stolen from PennDOT, as was the car Aungst was found in by state police. Police said Aungst had also taken a PennDOT truck earlier in the night but had switched to the car because he thought he was being followed by two vehicles.
When Aungst was questioned initially, he claimed he had been called into work that night and had not left the PennDOT facilities, but investigators were told by his foreman that he was never called into work Saturday night. He also claimed he wasn’t living at his house any longer but was staying “up the hill,” despite being unable to tell officers what street his other home was on.
Aungst eventually said he had driven a yellow PennDOT truck into Altoona and made several stops but never went to his house. Police pointed out Aungst’s timeline for his whereabouts that night contained multiple discrepancies and he eventually said he did go to his house about 1 a.m. to use the bathroom.
At one point, Aungst said a “a neighbor he was at odds with ‘lit it,'” police wrote in the charges.
Police said that when Aungst was confronted with the fact his neighbors and their baby were put in danger, Aungst “acted surprised and almost remorseful, stating he thought they were out of town.”
After a search warrant was obtained by investigators, Aungst’s clothing was seized and his skin was swabbed with cotton balls to be tested for accelerants.
Aungst was booked Sunday night on charges that include felony counts of arson, causing a catastrophe, burglary, criminal trespass, theft and receiving stolen property.
Bail was set at $50,000 cash and Aungst remains in Blair County Prison with a preliminary hearing scheduled for June 19.
Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458.