An East Freedom man lit the fire that swept through an East End duplex on Thursday, claiming the life of a 3-year-old boy, Altoona police said.
Aaron Wilson Dishong, 62, of 112 Wilt Lane, Apt. 102, allegedly set the blaze just after 6 a.m. because he mistakenly believed that an ex-paramour was staying at 113 S. Second St. and he wanted her dead, Blair County Chief Deputy District Attorney Wade Kagarise said Thursday night about 10 p.m.
Kagarise spoke as officers took Dishong to Magisterial District Judge Todd F. Kelly's office for arraignment on homicide, attempted homicide, arson and related charges.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
A fire Thursday morning at 113 S. Second St. in Altoona was set because a man wanted to kill his ex-paramour, police said.
Brandy Etchison and her two small children, Daryl Etchison Jr., 3, and Madison Etchison, 2, were asleep, on the third floor, when Dishong allegedly started the fire in the living room, according to Dishong's arrest papers.
Brandy Etchison jumped from a third-floor window to escape with Madison but was unable to get Daryl out of the burning building, Kagarise said.
"She is essentially a hero in our opinion," Kagarise said.
Responding Altoona firefighters pulled Daryl from the home and he died at Altoona Regional, police said.
Husband Darrel Etchison was at work when the fire broke out, Kagarise said.
A UPMC spokeswoman said Brandy Etchison remained in critical condition late Thursday, and Kagarise said it was his understanding that Madison was to be released from the hospital.
District Attorney Richard Consiglio called the arson "horrific" and commended Altoona police, state police and the Altoona Fire Department for working together to quickly sort out the details of the crime, one that was initially thought to be a terrible accident.
Altoona police Detective Sgt. Benjamin Jones declined to say how Dishong set the fire. The investigation was a total team effort and evolved rapidly after two witnesses arrived at the state police barracks in Hollidaysburg to say they had information about the fire, Jones said.
The two witnesses came forward to say Dishong had gone to South Second Street to stalk his ex-paramour over the past couple of days and had said he was going to kill her, Kagarise said.
Police listened in on phone conversations between Dishong and a witness - phone calls during which Dishong incriminated himself, Kagarise said.
That witness, according to court records, told police that Dishong admitted Thursday that he started the fire and when he saw a news report that one person was killed, Dishong celebrated because he thought it was his ex-girlfriend, police said.
When the witness brought up that it might have been a child killed, Dishong allegedly said, "No, I got her," police noted in the affidavit of probable cause.
Police noted Dishong's story to investigators contained "numerous inconsistencies," and when asked after his arraignment by a reporter if he was responsible for what police alleged, Dishong said, "No."
Dishong's ex-paramour had a protection-from-abuse order against him, Kagarise said. According to court records, Dishong referenced a hearing on the matter, scheduled for Thursday, when he spoke to the two witnesses who came forward.
Police indicated Dishong said that he should return to 113 S. Second St. before the hearing and "take her out" before heading to the woods to commit suicide.
Living in the 111 half of the duplex were two Penn State Altoona students who were alerted to the fire by screams of a distraught Brandy Etchison, desperate to save her son.
"I heard banging on the window and didn't know what was going on," said Macy Yingling, 19.
Yingling said it was the screaming that woke her and for a moment, she thought it was a domestic dispute that spilled into the street.
Then she heard breaking glass.
Yingling's roommate, fellow student Lauren Johnson, 19, said she had just showered and was blow-drying her hair when she thought she smelled something burning.
"Then I heard the screaming," Johnson said.
The two women started down the stairs together and by the time they reached the first floor, they noticed the smoke and could see the flames outside. Escaping out the back door, they encountered Brandy Etchison, hysterical and screaming that her son was still inside.
Altoona Deputy Fire Chief Mike Tofano said firefighters were called to the scene at 6:27 a.m. for what dispatchers said was a porch fire. As firefighters approached the duplex, it was apparent it was much more than that, Tofano said.
Yingling's parents, Chris and Diane Yingling of Bedford, who owned the duplex, said the family had moved to the duplex in October. Chris Yingling said the building is insured but he didn't know what would come next as he waited to talk to investigators.
John Lowery, who lives nearby on First Avenue, said he was awake when he heard the call come across the scanner. Realizing it was close to his house, he walked up the street.
"This whole front was - side to side - all you could see was flames," Lowery said.
He said he watched as AMED personnel rushed the family into ambulances and away to the the hospital.
"It was horrible looking," Lowery said. "It was bad."
A preliminary hearing for Dishong is slated for Wednesday.