COATESVILLE, Pa. – A 19-year-old described as a pyromaniac who liked to watch things burn was charged Thursday with setting nine fires in an arson-plagued steel town, including a block-long blaze that displaced dozens of people last month.
Roger Leon Barlow Jr., an automotive technical student from nearby Downingtown, was charged with arson, aggravated assault and related counts. He was arraigned Thursday afternoon and bail was set at $9 million.
Chester County District Attorney Joseph Carroll, who lives in Coatesville, said he does not believe the fires were gang-related, hate crimes or targeted at specific individuals. Carroll called Barlow a pyromaniac, but declined to disclose evidence to support it, other than to say that Barlow enjoyed watching fires.
Coatesville, about 35 miles west of Philadelphia, has tallied 18 arsons this year and 26 last year, one of them fatal. In December, authorities arrested three people believed to have been responsible for some of the arsons, including the early December blaze that killed an 83-year-old woman.
The fires, however, continued and many of the city's approximately 11,000 residents said they were afraid to go to bed at night for fear another blaze would be set.
On Thursday, several residents interrupted a City Hall news conference about the arrest with applause. City Councilman Kurt Schenk said he was elated.
"It's just evil — pure evil — as far as I can see, anybody who would want to hurt somebody like that," Schenk said.
Staff at the Downingtown district court where Barlow was arraigned said he did not have an attorney.
Barlow, a high school graduate, lives with his parents. His father, Roger, declined to comment when reached by phone Thursday afternoon.
The teen told investigators Wednesday that he set nine fires since Jan. 2, according to a police affidavit. One of them tore through 15 row homes on a single block, displacing about 50 residents and causing an estimated $1.2 million in damage.
With a suspect under arrest, Carroll said residents should be able to sleep easier, "although I'm not convinced this is the only person involved."
Barlow set his last fire on Feb. 3, but the last identified arson in the area was Feb. 6 at a trailer home in nearby East Fallowfield Township, Carroll said. Besides the 18 fires in Coatesville this year, there have been at least five outside the city limits.
An arson task force focused on Barlow after police stopped his vehicle during elevated patrols, said Mark Potter, special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Investigators asked Barlow what he was doing in town. Based on his reaction — and a later glance at his MySpace page, which includes a box showing animated flames — officers knew they wanted to talk to him further, Potter said.
Arsonists are typically motivated by thrill-seeking, revenge or hate, Potter said.
"Roger Barlow's dangerous and risky behavior for the past 48 days, and maybe longer, has now been stopped," he said.
With Barlow in custody, investigators said they will take a new look at the other unsolved arsons and determine if he had a role in them.