ROARING SPRING - A magisterial district judge dismissed charges Thursday against alleged arsonists Wade Rhodes and Mason Fornwalt, quashing the state's accusations that Rhodes started the 2007 fire that destroyed his family's Martinsburg meat market.
Citing investigators' inability to officially label the fire an arson - a point defense attorneys likened to charging murder without a body - Magisterial District Judge Craig Ormsby dismissed the men's charges long before a trial could have begun.
Although Rhodes' relatives patted him on the back and tearfully celebrated the victory Thursday, he remains in jail, facing scores of similar charges for a series of alleged Bedford County arsons.
"We'll be taking them one at a time," his mother, Brenda Kensinger, said.
Fornwalt, 23, initially accused of helping Rhodes, 25, choked back tears as he picked up his infant child's carrier outside the district court.
Assistant District Attorney Derek Elensky wouldn't say whether he planned to refile the charges, adding only that his office plans to continue the investigation.
With the burned barn long gone and its neighboring meat market since rebuilt, however, investigators may have difficulty surmounting the legal requirement of "corpus delicti" - proving that a crime occurred in the first place.
"They don't have the origin, they don't have the accelerant and they don't have the cause," Rhodes' counsel, Pittsburgh-based defense attorney George W. Bills Jr., said during the pair's preliminary hearing.
Elensky maintained that the absence of any other likely cause for the fire, combined with alleged written confessions from both Rhodes and Fornwalt, ought to serve as sufficient evidence.
"The evidence is what the evidence is," Elensky told Ormsby during one of many debates prompted by attorneys' objections.
Both sides questioned state police Fire Marshal Michael Eppolito Sr., who blamed widespread damage and debris piles for responders' inability to find a certain cause after the Aug. 26, 2007, blaze.
Defense attorneys disputed Rhodes' and Fornwalt's alleged confessions, reportedly made to a pair of state police troopers after Rhodes first faced charges in the Bedford County fires. One trooper is now retired out-of-state, Eppolito said, while the other failed to appear at the Thursday hearing.
"Suspicion and conjecture are not evidence, and are not accepted as such," Ormsby said, reading from prior case law.
Rhodes' grandmother, meat market owner Kathryn Rhodes, appeared as a witness. While some relatives have indicated they believed he was guilty, others filled the small courtroom to support him through the hearing.
Along with several alleged co-conspirators, Rhodes still faces a hearing in Bedford County as soon as next month. Because investigators in his five alleged arsons there determined the blazes to be intentional, prosecutors' first hurdle - proving a crime took place - may already be overcome.
Nevertheless, as he waited for his return trip to Blair County Prison in shackles and an orange jumpsuit Thursday, Rhodes grinned outside the courtroom.
"I feel thankful," he said.
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.