MARTINSBURG - On his Facebook page, next to a smiling self-portrait photograph, Wade Rhodes typed in March: "If everything works out, I would like to go back to school and make something of my life."
Three weeks later, already facing 111 charges for a string of arsons, Rhodes, 25, allegedly told police he was responsible for the 2007 fire that destroyed his family's Martinsburg store.
"There's nothing we can do," his aunt, Christine Violet, said. "He needs to get help."
Rhodes, a former volunteer firefighter, was arraigned Aug. 10 on charges that he intentionally lit hay bales under a barn at Rhodes Meat Market five summers ago. The fire spread to his grandmother's store, burning its roof and caving in its ceilings.
It took the family a year to reopen the business.
Why Rhodes allegedly burned the market - and how he was set on a path the led to at least six more alleged area arsons - is a question often rooted in childhood experiences and the compulsive fire-starter mind-set, retired Altoona Fire Marshal Randal S. Isenberg said Friday.
"Generally it starts at a very young age. ... Setting fires is a learned behavior," said Isenberg, who spoke in general terms about fire-setting.
Every child shows an interest in fire, but for some, the fascination becomes entrenched, Isenberg said.
As they become adults, pyromaniacs come to see fire-starting as a deeply pleasurable experience. For many, it creates an almost sexual enjoyment, Isenberg said.
Rhodes' family kept a burn pile in their yard during his childhood - and while he seemed to enjoy fire, there was no indication then that his interest was dangerous, Violet said.
That he reportedly served as a volunteer firefighter as a teen isn't a surprise, Isenberg said: Many alleged arsonists show an interest not only in fire itself but also in the thrill of the emergency response.
Rhodes was 20 when his grandmother's meat market burned down. Investigators at the time filed the blaze under "undetermined origin." It wasn't conclusively listed as an arson until Rhodes's alleged confession in March.
Some serial arsonists start with familiar buildings or those close to home, Isenberg said.
"It's a matter of convenience - what's available," he said. "Then they think, 'That worked out pretty good.' It becomes easier and easier."
Last November, four years after the Rhodes Meat Market fire, 19 Breezewood firefighters responded to a massive blaze at the abandoned Penn Aire Motel.
A group of young arsonists, allegedly including Rhodes, set mattresses alight in empty rooms there, police said in an affidavit. The fire caused $100,000 in damage.
Some serial arsonists' tendency to form loose-knit groups is based in their unique mind-set, Isenberg said.
"Part of the thrill is that they're showing off for someone," he said. "It kind of bleeds over on them."
Isenberg recalled a case in which a fire-starter "recruited" young teens, befriending them before introducing them to his crimes.
Present at the Breezewood hotel fire were Rhodes and several companions: Donald Leo Stevey, then 23; Charles Roger Swankler, an Army veteran then 23; and Keagan Swankler, also known as Keagan Parks, also 23, of Washington state, police said.
Arsons continued to hit northern and eastern Bedford County in the months that followed, police said.
Rhodes and several friends rapidly allegedly carried out three arsons over two days in January, torching barns and an empty house in West Providence Township, Monroe Township and Everett, police said in arrest papers.
Less than two weeks later, firefighters in Hopewell Township responded to a blaze at a barn filled with hay and livestock. Police allege, Rhodes and companion Corey Divelbiss, 19, were responsible.
Violet said Rhodes had fallen in with a group of friends, but she said she didn't know much about them at the time.
"I didn't know if they were a bad crowd or a good crowd," she said.
In the alleged circle of arsonists were two brothers - Mason and Dillon Fornwalt, both of Everett - and Misty Caroline Hafer, apparently Mason Fornwalt's fiancee.
Police would later report that Mason Fornwalt was present during the Rhodes Meat Market fire, though he allegedly claimed to have been in a car when the spark was set.
State police at the Hollidaysburg, Bedford and McConnellsburg barracks investigated the fires, the last of which damaged a house in East Providence Township late at night after Valentine's Day.
It appears no one was hurt or killed in the fires; the alleged arsonists seemed to target only empty buildings.
Isenberg said that could be expected: Many compulsive arsonists don't want to harm anyone but derive pleasure just from the flames and the public response.
Arsons that end with injuries or deaths usually have more obvious motives, like revenge or money, he said.
State police arson investigators questioned Rhodes and his friends in March. According to affidavits, Rhodes readily admitted to starting the fires, even allegedly volunteering the fact that he'd burned his family's business.
Police in Bedford County then swept up the group's members, most of whose cases are now moving through the county court system.
Rhodes' and Mason Fornwalt's new Blair County charges have yet to progress far: Fornwalt, in fact, hasn't yet been arrested, while Rhodes remains behind bars in Bedford County.
Relatives hired Pittsburgh-based defense attorney George W. Bills Jr. to represent Rhodes. Bills, who has defended accused killers in Pittsburgh and Johnstown, questioned prosecutors' case before a hearing Thursday at Magisterial District Judge Craig Ormsby's Roaring Spring office.
Bills noted that, with the fire ruled "undetermined" at the time, the arson case seems to rely largely on Rhodes's alleged confession.
Asked Friday whether the family had suspected Wade Rhodes' involvement after the fire that destroyed their business, Violet, a manager at the market, hesitated.
"We have to move on with our lives. I'm not someone who'd want to hold animosity," she said, noting that longtime customers have been helpful since the store reopened in 2008.
Mortgage costs in the new building are high, but the business has carried on, Violet said.
"They were very supportive, very anxious to see us reopen," she said. "People have always been good to us."
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.