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Arson Case Briefs

provided by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms
for more information on this Brief, contact:
ATF, Arson and Explosive Programs Division - (202) 927-7930


8361 Bricelyn Street (rental property)
Pittsburgh, PA
February 14, 1995


A. IN: 63462-95-0019 J

B. CASE AGENTS: William J. Petraitis, Daniel Boeh, and Jason P. Wick

C. FIELD DIVISION/OFFICE: Pittsburgh II

D. PHONE: 412-644-2911

E. PROSECUTORS:

Shaun E. Sweeney
Assistant United States Attorney

Marc Clark
Assistant District Attorney
Allegheny County

F. SYNOPSIS:

On February 14, 1995, an arson fire damaged a rental property located at 8361 Bricelyn Street, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Three Pittsburgh fire fighters were killed and three were injured during fire suppression efforts. Subsequent investigation by ATF indicated that the tenant of the dwelling, Darlene Buckner, and her 17-year-old son, Gregory Brown, had set the blaze for the purpose of collecting insurance proceeds.

G. CHARGES:

Pennsylvania Crimes Code

Chapter 25, Section 2502(B), Criminal Homicide
Chapter 33, Section 3301 (A), Arson and Related Offenses
Chapter 41, Section 4117, Insurance Fraud
Chapter 9, Section 903, Conspiracy

H. EVIDENCE:

1. In November 1990, Darlene and Ronald Buckner began renting a residence located at 8361 Bricelyn Street, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There was no insurance coverage of any type on the residence.

2. In approximately the summer of 1994, Darlene Buckner contacted Irene Berry of Ghafoor Realty Company, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and began the search to purchase a home.

3. In approximately the late summer/early fall of 1994, Darlene Buckner viewed a home located at 521 Grove Road, Penn Hills, Pennsylvania, which she wished to purchase.

4. In approximately the fall of 1994, Buckner terminated her search for a new home due to insufficient finances.

5. On November 4, 1994, Darlene Buckner acquired renter's insurance policy number 46229172, in the amount of $20,000, from the Keystone Insurance Company.

6. Sometime on February 13, 1995, Buckner removed a crate containing a 1-gallon gasoline can from the trunk of her Dodge Dynasty; she placed the crate on the front porch of her residence because she allegedly had to transport relatives to the doctor the next day. She also allegedly removed a baby seat and placed it inside the house.

7. At approximately 6:00 p.m. that evening, and again at 10:30 p.m., Buckner received telephone calls from Lucretia Harris of Pittsburgh asking her to prepare a tuna salad for the February 15 wake of Buckner's recently deceased relative, Arthur Harris.

8. According to Darlene Buckner, the following events then occurred:

- At approximately 11:17 p.m., her husband decided to retire for the evening and went to bed.

- Between 11:30 and 11:45 p.m., she went to the basement to use the bathroom, and at that time, her infant son, Fred, walked down to the basement for the first time ever.

- Gregory Brown then joined her and Fred in the basement to discuss the fact that Fred had walked to the basement. They locked the basement door on their way out.

- At approximately 11:45 p.m., she placed Fred in his crib in the master bedroom where her husband was sleeping.

- Between 11:45 p.m. and 12:05 a.m., Buckner claimed that she and Brown departed the residence and went shopping at Giant Eagle. As they departed the house, Buckner blew the horn at Margaret McCord of 8361 Bricelyn Street.

- Buckner claimed that at approximately 1:00 a.m., she returned and drove her Dodge Dynasty behind her residence on Exley Way, dropped Brown off, and proceeded to drive her vehicle to the intersection of Bricelyn Street and Wilkinsburg Avenue, where she parked.

9. The following evidence refuted Buckner's story:

- At approximately 1:00 a.m., Brown told Marion Moyer of 8363 Bricelyn Street that as he and Buckner returned, he exited the car in front of a chemical company on Frankstown Avenue and ran to the fire scene while Buckner drove the vehicle to the intersection of Bricelyn Street and Wilkinsburg Avenue

- Margaret McCord remembered seeing only one person in the vehicle when Buckner blew the horn at her prior to the fire.

- Sometime prior to 12:22 a.m. on February 14, Brown was seen standing in front of the Buckner's residence. Smoke was emanating from the rear basement window, and no emergency equipment had yet arrived on scene.

- At approximately 1:05 a.m., Buckner returned alone and parked at the intersection of Bricelyn Street, where she conversed with a Pittsburgh Police Department officer. She then exited her vehicle and ran down Bricelyn Street toward her residence; at that time, the police officer noticed a baby seat in the front seat of the vehicle and examined the seat to ensure that a baby had not been left behind. This was the same car seat Buckner claimed she had removed from the vehicle earlier in the day, and it was in the passenger seat where Brown was supposed to have sat.

10. On February 14, 1995, at 12:22 a.m., fire fighters responded to the residence to fight the blaze. Fire fighters Thomas Brooks, Patricia Conroy, and Marc Kolenda were killed during suppression efforts.

11. On February 14, 1995, ATF, the Pittsburgh Police Arson Squad, and the Allegheny County Fire Marshal's Office conducted an origin and cause investigation. They determined the fire to be incendiary in nature.

12. On February 14, Darlene Buckner resumed her search for a home.

13. On February 14, 1995, she received check number 1285953 in the amount of $2,500 from the Keystone Insurance Company in relation with the fire loss.

14. On February 16, 1995, evidence retained during the crime scene search was forwarded to the ATF National Laboratory in Rockville, Maryland, to be examined for the presence of accelerant.

15. On February 16, Darlene Buckner provided a statement to the Keystone Insurance Company regarding the fire. On February 21 she contacted them and asked for additional advance money.

16. On February 22, ATF agents returned to the scene, which had not been released, and seized additional evidence. The ATF National Laboratory subsequently determined that gasoline was present in a sample taken from the basement, and on February 28 they found accelerant on another sample.

17. On February 23, Darlene Buckner received a $1,500 check from the Keystone Insurance Company relative to the fire loss, and the next day she placed $500 down on a residence.

18. On February 27, Fire Protection Engineer

Dr. James Quintere, of the University of Maryland, examined the fire scene and determined that the fire was incendiary in nature.

19. On March 2, the Pittsburgh Police Homicide Unit forwarded additional evidence to ATF's National Laboratory; accelerant was determined to be present on the evidence.

20. On March 15, Gregory Brown was arrested for State narcotic and firearms violations and was subsequently sentenced to the Vision Quest Juvenile Boot Camp in Franklin, Pennsylvania.

21. On March 25, Buckner removed the $500 deposit on the Grove Road property because the owner had decided not to sell. She then deposited the money on another residence and executed a purchase agreement.

22. On April 15, Darlene and Ronald Buckner and Greg Brown issued sworn statements to representatives of the Keystone Insurance Company.

23. During her examination under oath, Darlene Buckner stated that she departed her residence with Greg Brown for Giant Eagle at 11:45 p.m. on February 13, 1995; however, during a previous interview, she said they left the residence at 12:05 a.m. on February 14.

24. She also stated under oath that she had never met with a realtor, but that she may have spoken with one over the telephone. She denied searching for a home prior to the fire. When Keystoneís attorney confronted her, however, she admitted to searching for a home before the fire. She further stated that her search for a home ended before the fire due to the fact that her family wished to gather additional funds, and that she believed she needed at least $5,000 to purchase a home.

25. Darlene Buckner stated under oath that Keystone Insurance Policy number 46229172 was the first she had acquired in the 5 years she had resided at 8361 Bricelyn Street.

26. Under oath, she denied removing the gas can from her car and placing it on the front porch the day of the fire.

27. Gregory Brown stated during his examination under oath that Darlene Buckner had parked her Dodge Dynasty on Exley Way when they returned home from Giant Eagle.

28. Ronald Buckner stated under oath that his family had last conversed sometime in 1994 with Ghafoor Real Estate regarding the purchase of a home. He said the agency had searched for a home for his family, but that up to the time of the fire the company had not located anything they approved of and was still looking.

29. Ronald Buckner stated during his examination under oath that a crate containing a gasoline can had been removed from their Dodge Dynasty on February 13, 1995, but that the can had never contained gasoline.

30. On April 29, 1995, Ronald Buckner applied for a home mortgage loan through Mellon Bank of Pittsburgh to purchase a home at 135 Broadcrest Avenue in Pittsburgh. On May 26, 1995, Darlene Buckner hand carried a Keystone Insurance Company Sworn Statement in Proof of Loss, in the amount of $52,898.87, to Keystone Insurance Company. On May 30, a Mellon Bank loan officer contacted Keystone Insurance Company and conveyed that the Bucknerís request for a home mortgage would not be approved unless Keystone Insurance Company intended to pay the claim associated with the loss.

31. On May 30, Darlene Buckner received a check by mail from Keystone Insurance Company in the amount of $16,000 relative to the fire loss.

32. On May 30, Gregory Brown began his 90-day sentence at the Vision Quest Juvenile Boot Camp relative to his arrest on March 15, 1995. Sometime in June, July, and August 1995, Brown bragged to a boot camp associate that he had started a fire at his family's residence to acquire insurance proceeds and that three fire fighters had died in the blaze. He made similar statements to another juvenile and said that he would prob ably have to attend court eventually for setting the fire.

33. On June 29, 1995, Ronald Buckner closed on the purchase of the Broadcrest Avenue residence and moved in with his family.

34. In approximately November 1995, Darlene Buckner requested of the Allegheny County Probation Office that Brown be permitted to relocate with Ken and Marcy Brown in Billings, Montana, because she thought the move was in his best interests.

35. On April 12, 1996, Darlene Buckner and Gregory Brown were simultaneously arrested at their respective residences without incident.

I. LEGAL ISSUES AND PROBLEMS:

ATF Pittsburgh investigated the case for a Pennsylvania State grand jury.

Admissions made to the boot camp associate by Gregory Brown were sanitized for the trial, and all the details of Brown's statements were not permitted due to precedent law stating that comments made about a coconspirator, in this case Darlene Buckner, are not admissible unless the coconspirator is present for the comments.

J. VERDICT AND SENTENCING:

Darlene Buckner and Gregory Brown were each charged with three counts of 2nd degree homicide, arson, conspiracy, and insurance fraud.

A jury trial commenced on January 31, 1997. After a 3-week joint trial and 3 days of deliberation, the jury found Gregory Brown guilty of three counts of Homicide in the Second Degree, two counts of Arson (endangering property and endangering persons), and Insurance Fraud. He was acquitted of criminal conspiracy. Darlene Buckner was found guilty of insurance fraud and was acquitted of the other three charges. Brown was sentenced to serve three consecutive life terms regarding the homicide charges, and on the arson charges was sentenced to an additional 5 to 10 yearsí imprisonment, to run consecutive to the three life terms. Buckner was sentenced to 3 years probation, 500 hours of community service, and fined $5,000 for insurance fraud.

 
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