Probation given to man who set blaze in house

July 26, 1995|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Sun Staff Writer

Norman and Edna Lindenberg never stopped standing by their son.

Despite allegations that 24-year-old Joseph Michael Lindenberg attempted to kill them by starting a fire at their Columbia home -- allegations dropped yesterday by prosecutors -- the Lindenbergs believe that he never meant to harm them.

The couple appeared yesterday in Howard Circuit Court to support their son as he entered a plea agreement on an arson charge.

At the hearing, Joseph Lindenberg -- a high-achieving science student at Oakland Mills High School who later dropped out of the University of Maryland -- apologized to them. "I doubt that I'll be able to make up for causing such trauma," he said. "But I will try by my actions to make clear my remorse."

Mr. Lindenberg was given probation before judgment, which means he will not have a criminal record if he completes three years' supervised probation and continues to receive counseling.

Mr. Lindenberg and his parents declined to comment on the case after yesterday's hearing. But his attorney said the family is pleased by the judge's decision.

"The entire family is totally convinced that Joe had no intention of harming his parents, nor of destroying the family home," said Jeffrey Silverberg, a Baltimore lawyer.

Mr. Lindenberg served about 4 1/2 months in jail before being released on bail in April. He initially was charged with two counts of attempted murder and arson for the fire at his parents' home in the 5200 block of Farm Pond Lane in Oakland Mills village, where he also lived.

His 69-year-old father and 63-year-old mother escaped without injury. The fire caused about $70,000 in damage at the house, which has since been repaired.

Senior Assistant State's Attorney Joseph Murtha dropped the attempted murder charges yesterday, saying psychological evaluations showed that Mr. Lindenberg never intended to kill his parents.

Yesterday's hearing capped a case that fascinated many who wondered what led a young man described as a promising science whiz to set his parents' house afire.

Mr. Silverberg explained at yesterday's hearing that his client had been suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, a condition that causes extreme anxiety or depression when a person cannot act on obsessions or compulsions.

Mr. Lindenberg sought treatment from several psychiatrists and tried different medications, but his condition worsened and he had to drop out of the University of Maryland's electrical engineering program at College Park, Mr. Silverberg said.

Returning home, Mr. Lindenberg was desperate to find a solution for his disorder, so he began experimenting with his medicine, called Klonopin, Mr. Silverberg said.

The attorney noted that the recommended dosage for Klonopin is about 4 milligrams daily. But on the day before the fire, Mr. Lindenberg had taken about 35 milligrams of the medicine within five hours.

"It is the family's firm belief and conviction . . . that this huge dosage of medication caused Joe to be so impaired that he was unable to make rational decisions at the time of the fire," Mr. Silverberg said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Murtha provided details of the Nov. 16 fire, which was set about 2 a.m. in the Lindenbergs' "play room," directly below the master bedroom.

Mr. Lindenberg told police detectives after the blaze that he started it by setting paper on fire with a pack of matches, Mr. Murtha said. He then left the house, knowing his parents were asleep.

Mr. Murtha added that Mr. Lindenberg told investigators that he had a heated argument with his parents the day before the fire, during which he told them that he wished they were dead.

The argument started when the Lindenbergs told their son that they wanted him to stop taking his medicine and that they wanted to commit him to a mental institution for treatment, Mr. Murtha said.

Mr. Lindenberg said he now is taking the prescribed dosage of his medication and regularly attending counseling sessions with a psychiatrist.

At yesterday's hearing, Mr. Murtha wanted Judge Dennis Sweeney to give Mr. Lindenberg a conviction for arson, a suspended jail term and later consider granting him probation before judgment.

However, Judge Sweeney opted to give Mr. Lindenberg the probation before judgment now.

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