WEST CHESTER, Pa. (AP) — A firefighter accused of setting a pair of small fires in an arson-plagued steel town near Philadelphia initially told police he had not left the house on the night of the blazes, but later said he had been out buying cocaine, an investigator testified Friday at a preliminary hearing.
Robert Tracey Jr., 37, of Coatesville, had been a volunteer firefighter for nearly 25 years before becoming a paid firefighter with the Coatesville Fire Department in February. He was arrested a month later in the two March 20 fires. On Friday, he was ordered to stand trial on arson and related charges in Chester County court.
In interviews with police, Tracey initially said he hadn't left his house the night of the fires, Trooper John Clifford testified. Later in the interview, Tracey said he had left to buy cocaine a few blocks away, but hadn't initially wanted to admit that, according to Clifford, a state police fire marshal.
Investigators found cocaine residue in Tracey's house, along with a lighter and clothing that matched witness descriptions, said Clifford, who declined to elaborate on Tracey's police interview after the hearing.
Defense attorney Francis C. Miller said it was the first he had heard of the alleged drug purchase.
"I think there's a lot to be learned," Miller said outside the courtroom. "I don't know how strong or weak the commonwealth's case is."
Several neighbors also testified that on the night of the fires they saw someone wearing dark clothing and either a hoodie or a knit cap arriving at the scenes, setting the fires and then running away on foot.
Tracey is one of seven suspects arrested in connection with a rash of fires in Coatesville and nearby communities. Nearly 50 fires have been set in Coatesville since February 2008, and 20 more nearby; dozens of homes have been damaged and one person has been killed.
Investigators say the seven suspects are responsible for at least 25 of the fires.
Three of the suspects have connections to fire departments. Besides Tracey, one was a volunteer firefighter and another had applied to be a volunteer but was rejected.
Miller questioned why his client at one point was jailed along with one of the other suspects.
"Somebody was trying to create a jailhouse snitch," he said after the hearing.
Thomas Ost-Prisco, an assistant district attorney for Chester County, said that his office had nothing to do with the fact that Tracey was briefly jailed with the other suspect. He said he believes it was a mistake and that it was corrected.
Ost-Prisco said investigators are still looking at whether Tracey could be connected to any of the other unsolved arsons.
Tracey's mother was the victim of a December arson in Coatesville, a struggling steel town of 11,000.