The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

February 21, 2013

Arson case going to trial

Patrick Buchnowski

JOHNSTOWN — A Windber man who admitted to starting a devastating Moxham fire that destroyed three buildings and left at least 13 people homeless in November will stand trial.

James Richard McDonald, 46, is charged with two counts of arson, 34 counts of reckless endangerment, five counts of criminal mischief and one count of causing or risking a catastrophe stemming from the Nov. 22 fire that roared into a six-alarm blaze.

He waived his right to a preliminary hearing Thursday before District Judge Leonard Grecek of Roxbury.

Johnstown assistant fire Chief Tom Horner and police Sgt. Thomas Owens were prepared to testify about the investigation and subsequent arrest, Assistant District Attorney Forrest B. Fordham III said.

“We thought with both of these two witnesses we could be able to hold the defendant accountable for starting the fire,” he said.

Public Defender Maribeth Schaffer, who is representing McDonald, said she is examining possible defenses for her client.

McDonald admitted setting the blaze to get back at his girlfriend’s husband, according to a police criminal complaint.

McDonald fled the fire scene but not before mumbling a few prayers and leaving behind a Bible, police said.

The fire started in the rear of the vacant residence in the 600 block of Coleman Avenue and spread to an apartment complex and an unoccupied home that was being remodeled.

People living in the apartment building escaped the blaze uninjured.

Police said McDonald previously had been involved with a married woman who lived in the apartment building.

Fire investigators were able to identify McDonald from a video taken from a nearby home.

Police said McDonald told them he had planned to confront the woman’s husband, but instead set fire to a box, a mattress and a couch in the rear of the vacant house next door.

“I planned to do something bad,” McDonald said, according to police.

The fire erupted into a six-alarm blaze, which forced multiple volunteer fire companies to help battle the flames.

No injuries were reported.

In an unrelated case, a charge of terroristic threats was withdrawn.

McDonald had been accused of making a threatening telephone call to a woman at Memorial Medical Center two days after the fire.

McDonald, of the 1300 block of Cambria Avenue, was returned to the Cambria County Prison, where he is being held on $150,000 percentage bond.

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