TRENTON – Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa announced that the former chief of the Quinton Volunteer Fire Company pleaded guilty to arson today for using fire company equipment and personnel to help a property owner by unlawfully burning down an abandoned house that had been declared unsafe.
Patrick Foster, 47, of Quinton Township, pleaded guilty to an accusation charging him with third-degree crimes of arson and hindering apprehension or prosecution before Superior Court Judge Timothy G. Farrell in Salem County. Under the plea agreement, the state will recommend that he be sentenced to 364 days in the county jail as a condition of a term of probation. He must forfeit his membership in the fire company and will be permanently barred from any public position or employment. He could also face a fine of up to $30,000.
Deputy Attorney General Anthony A. Picione, Deputy Chief of the Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau, prosecuted the case. Foster was charged as a result of an investigation by the New Jersey State Police, the Division of Criminal Justice and the New Jersey Division of Fire Safety. Judge Farrell scheduled sentencing for Foster for Feb. 5, 2013.
In pleading guilty, Foster admitted that he agreed to use the fire company to burn the house down in order to gain assistance from the property owner’s son. The son was the housing official for Quinton Township at the time, and Foster wanted his assistance in obtaining a certificate of occupancy in connection with renovations he was making to his own home. Foster also admitted that he hindered the investigation by lying to police, saying that his wife knew of an arrangement between him and the son regarding the fire and the certificate of occupancy, when she did not.
“This chief put the members of his fire company in peril by unlawfully commanding them to burn down a house and conduct a drill that was in complete violation of the strict state training protocols that are in place to ensure firefighter safety,” said Attorney General Chiesa. “What makes it even worse is that he did it all to advance his own selfish interests.”
“The conduct of this chief was irresponsible, unsafe and, quite simply, criminal,” said Director Stephen J. Taylor of the Division of Criminal Justice. “This case should send a strong message that firefighters do not have any blanket dispensation to set fires to practice their skills or for any other purpose. They are subject to the laws of this state, as well as the rules of the New Jersey Fire Code.”
At Foster’s direction, members of the fire company were told to report to the abandoned house on Beasley Neck Road on the evening of Dec. 21, 2010 for a training exercise. Foster was in command at the scene and directed the firefighters to set fire to the structure, which they did using gasoline as an accelerant on the second floor of the house. Foster alerted 911 operators that the fire company was engaged in a special assignment for which permits had been issued.
In reality, it is illegal for firefighters to burn down a standard, existing structure for training. There are stringent requirements for “live-burn” training, and a permit is required from the Division of Fire Safety. No permit was obtained in this case. At one point during the fire, Foster called 911 and asked the operator to alert the electric company, because a live electrical wire had fallen to the ground, causing sparks to fly. Investigators found that the protocols in the New Jersey Fire Code for live-burn training were not followed, endangering the lives of firefighters under Foster’s command.
The investigation was conducted for the Division of Criminal Justice by Deputy Attorney General Picione, Detective John Sheeran and Dective Rob Feriozzi. It was conducted for the New Jersey State Police by Detective Stephen Christinzio and Detective Dennis Quinn. It was conducted for the Division of Fire Safety by Capt. Rodman Meyer of the New Jersey State Fire Marshal’s Office.
Foster was suspended from the Quinton Volunteer Fire Company as a result of the investigation and forfeited his position as chief.