A letter allegedly penned by Aaron Wilson Dishong, accused of killing 3-year-old Darrel "DJ" Etchison Jr. by setting fire to the boy's East End duplex, was just one of the pieces of evidence prosecutors said showed a man bent on killing his ex-girlfriend.
"Chose a black man over me," Dishong wrote, as read by Altoona Detective Sgt. Benjamin Jones at Dishong's preliminary hearing Wednesday at Central Court. "You will die by my hand."
The letter, Jones told Magisterial District Judge Jeffrey P. Auker, was found folded in the 62-year-old Dishong's wallet by police after his arrest Nov. 15, hours after the fire that claimed DJ's life and sent his mother and sister to a Pittsburgh hospital.
Aaron Dishong exits his preliminary hearing Wednesday at Central Court. Prosecutors said he set the deadly fire at an East End duplex because he mistakenly believed an ex-girlfriend was staying at the home.
Dishong set the deadly fire because he mistakenly believed an ex-girlfriend was staying at the Etchison home, prosecutors allege. In the letter, Dishong expressed his outrage that he thought the woman was now dating a black man.
Darrel Etchison Sr., 52, said that to him the racist overtones of the letter - because Dishong apparently thought his ex-paramour was involved with Etchison's brother - don't really matter to him.
His son is gone and it doesn't matter why, Etchison said outside the courtroom.
"The letter speaks for itself," said Blair County Deputy District Attorney Wade Kagarise after Auker's decision that prosecutors showed enough evidence to send all charges, including arson, homicide and attempted homicide, on to Blair County Court.
Dishong's defense team, court-appointed attorneys Thomas Dickey and Steven Passarello, tried to chip away at the prosecution's case. Dickey objected, mostly unsuccessfully, to testimony he claimed was simply words without evidence.
At most, prosecutors showed Dishong was involved in having someone else set the fire, but there was no direct evidence Dishong set the fire or that it was even a case of arson, Dickey argued.
Through witnesses who included police and fire investigators, grieving mother Brandy Etchison, 33, and Dishong's neighbor, prosecutors laid out their case that Dishong set the fire out of revenge and had talked about it.
The neighbor testified she drove him to Altoona from their East Freedom apartment building on both days leading up to the fire.
"He was saying things like, 'I'm going to take her out. I'm going to take her out,'" the neighbor testified. "I'm sorry, at 62 years old, I didn't take him seriously."
The neighbor, who only knew Dishong a week since he had just moved in, said she was shocked and hysterical after he told her he set fire to the home, and she learned it was true when she watched the 7 a.m. news.
The woman testified Dishong came to her house so early that morning, at 6:45 a.m., that she asked him to come back.
Earlier in the week, Dishong asked her to also drive him to a hearing at Blair County Court on a protection-from-abuse petition filed by his ex-girlfriend. At just after 7 a.m. Dishong returned, she said, and told her he set the fire.
Later on Nov. 15, as police recorded, the neighbor made a pair of calls to Dishong in an attempt to get him talking. The calls, played in court, revealed a coy Dishong, who never outright confessed but also never denied it.
At one point in the first call, he claimed someone else set the fire at his behest. In the second call, he made the claim again after the neighbor asked how he got into the house.
"I didn't," Dishong is heard saying. "I had someone else do it."
"Who?" asked the neighbor.
"KKK member," Dishong said, in reference to the Ku Klux Klan.
Dishong eventually cautioned the neighbor about talking about the fire on the phone.
"We shouldn't be talking about this on the phone because you can pick up cellphones on a scanner," Dishong is heard saying on the police recording.
Brandy Etchison, in a back brace and using a walker, took the stand to describe how her husband had left for work that morning at just after 6 a.m.
She said she awoke to the sound of smoke alarms and scrambled to find her two children, who usually slept with her in the the third-floor bedroom, as flames blocked the staircase. Finding the lights wouldn't work, she clamored in the dark, smoke-choked bedroom, until she felt 2-year-old Madison clutch onto her.
She called for her son but heard nothing, she said.
Her next memory was waking up six days later in a Pittsburgh hospital, with a broken vertebrae from the fall from the porch roof after escaping the fire. Her throat scorched and her lungs still weak after being flushed of soot, Brandy Etchison described how she had met Dishong a few times before the fire because he dated her friend, a woman she said had been staying at the house that week but left the night before the fire.
"I'm still not exactly sure how I got out," Brandy Etchison said.
Auker also heard testimony from investigators, including a state police fire marshal and the Blair County coroner, who concluded DJ died of smoke inhalation and alleged the fire was set by Dishong after he broke into the Etchison's half-duplex through the front door before setting fire to a couch using paper stuffed in a bag.
Jones testified a form with Dishong's name on it was found a week after the fire just a block from the Etchison's home.
Kagarise said it was still too early to discuss whether the Blair County District Attorney's Office would seek the death penalty.
Darrel Etchison Sr. said that although he had wanted Blair County District Attorney Richard Consiglio to go after the death penalty, after Consiglio explained it would likely mean another 20 years until Dishong would likely see the death chamber, he could live with knowing Dishong would spend the rest of his life behind bars if convicted.
"I want the district attorney to make sure this animal never gets out so he can do something to hurt another family," Darrel Etchison said before the hearing.
Dishong is due next in Blair County Court in January and remains in Blair County Prison without bail.
Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458