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Arsonist: Prison term turned his life around

Rodland served 22 years for setting multiple fires in Altoona in the 1990s

HOLLIDAYSBURG — An Altoona man convicted of setting multiple fires in the 1990s told a Blair County judge this week that 22 years in prison has reformed him.

Christopher Michael Rodland, 44, who now lives in the Harrisburg area, apologized for what he described as “careless, dangerous decisions” he made years ago.

Rodland stood before Senior Judge Jolene G. Kopriva for resentencing in five of his criminal cases with arson convictions, based on a state Superior Court ruling that deemed his sentences in those cases were invalid for lack of restitution amounts.

Assistant District Attorney Derek Elensky asked Kopriva to order restitution of $6,425 to a victim whose last known address was in Williamsport. In the other cases, Elensky said, either nothing is due or the victims have died.

Elensky asked Kopriva to recognize, in the resentencing, that Rodland’s victims were people who lived in terror.

“Now that he’s out of jail, there are still people who live in fear,” Elensky said. “These are arsons that damaged a lot of lives.”

Kopriva recalled Rodland’s history with the court system that segmented his numerous arson cases by fire department. In addition to rendering guilty pleas, he was convicted of arson and related charges in two jury trials.

When addressing the Superior Court’s resentencing order, Kopriva allowed the incarceration periods to remain the same. They contributed to Rodland’s total sentence of almost 23 years to 70 years of incarceration.

“Since my release nine months ago, I’ve excelled more than I thought I would,” Rodland told Kopriva.

He said he got an apartment, a job, learned to shop for groceries and connected with family members.

Rodland also credited Tomorrow’s Neighbors, a Carlisle-based organization that helps ex-offenders coming out of prison, and its Executive Director Kurt Danysh, for his success so far. He described him as eager to be independent and someone who does not make excuses for his behavior.

“A lot of people come out of jail older, not wiser,” Danysh said. “He has come out wiser.”

Michael Levan, who has worked about three months with Rodland at a food distribution warehouse in Harrisburg, said Rodland had been doing an excellent job.

“I tried to train three other people for this job before Chris,” Levan said. “They weren’t cutting the mustard.”

Kopriva asked Levan for confirmation of his willingness to work with Rodland, knowing that he’s on parole.

“As long as he’s doing a good job for me, yeah,” Levan said.

Danysh told Kopriva that he is hoping to use Rodland in a promotional video for his organization that would be shown to prison inmates.

“My plan is to use him as a mentor for others,” Danysh said.

Former Altoona police investigator Roger White, now Blair Township police chief, recalled Rodland’s fire-setting routines and his knowledge of responding fire departments and their firefighters.

“I’m not surprised that he’s doing well at a warehouse job because the skills they praised him for, those were the same ones he exhibited years ago when he was setting fires,” White said. “Does 22 years in jail change him? I don’t know. From what I saw, he’s the same Chris Rodland I knew, just 22 years older.”

Defense attorney Matthew Dombrosky said he thinks Rodland is a changed person and a good citizen.

Rodland credited his incarceration.

“It took 20 to 22 years in prison to bring me to who I am today,” he said. “It helped me mature.”

Rodland said he sought “a lot” of counseling while in prison and identified a reason behind his fire-setting activity.

“It was a mismanagement of my anger,” he said.

He said he has learned to identify what triggers his anger and activities to control it.

Kopriva praised Rodland for his changes.

“You’re not the same person who was sentenced 22 years ago,” she told Rodland. “Your recognition that your 22 years (incarceration) was necessary, that’s huge.”

Lindsay Bollman of Altoona said she didn’t know Rodland, her half brother, until he contacted her by letter from jail

“Ever since he’s gotten out, he’s been the big brother I never had,” Bollman said.

Marquida Potts of Altoona said she, too, is connecting with Rodland. She said she was 8 years old when she learned he was her biological father.

“It’s nice to rebuild a relationship,” Potts said.

Elensky advised Kopriva that Rodland owes about $67,000 in restitution for the property losses and related expenses associated with the arsons.

Kopriva encouraged him to keep making payments to reduce that amount.

“You have a great job and you’re working long hours, so that should be doable,” she said.

Kopriva also told Rodland that arrangements could be made for him to write apology letters for delivery to the victims of his arsons. He said he would like to apologize to them, but is forbidden by court order from having any contact.

“These victims did not deserve to suffer, “ he said.

Kopriva said her new sentencing order will allow him to present his defense attorney with apology letters that can be forwarded to the district attorney’s office for delivery.

Rodland, who over the years has challenged his convictions and sentence imposed, still has appeals pending in federal court.

Pittsburgh attorney Lynn Ellenberger, who is representing Rodland in those appeals, said she is hoping that Rodland’s efforts can be recognized in the pursuit of a resolution.

“That would be in the best interest for the Commonwealth and the taxpayers, in light of the person he has become,” she said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 814-946-7456.

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