Man faced fire accusation before

Ellicott City resident charged in recent arsons was accused of setting classmate ablaze in '02

October 11, 2006|By Tyrone Richardson | Tyrone Richardson,Sun reporter

The arson charges filed against a former Ellicott City volunteer fireman whose MySpace Web page allegedly featured a burning stick-figure of a person are not the first time the 20-year-old has been accused of a crime involving fire.

During an auto shop class at South Carroll High School in 2002, one of Joseph Schroen's classmates accidentally spilled gasoline on himself. Schroen was accused of putting a lighter to the boy's shirt and setting him on fire, leaving the classmate with second-degree burns to his face and arm, according to charging documents filed in the case in Carroll County District Court.

Schroen was initially charged as an adult with assault and other crimes. His case was later transferred to the juvenile justice system and its disposition sealed.

Now 20, Schroen, a former volunteer firefighter, sits in the Howard County Detention Center with a bail of $1 million, charged in a series of arsons last summer that caused no injuries.

Fire investigators say he confessed to setting the blazes, and even had a MySpace page -- since taken down -- that featured an animated stick-figure setting itself on fire. Before the arrest, investigators say, they were monitoring the page for evidence.

Schroen faces charges of second-degree arson and malicious burning, accusations that have stunned residents in the Ellicott City neighborhood where he was living with his grandmother.

"I'm shocked. Especially since I think he was studying to be a firefighter. I did not expect that," said John Bisser, 46, a neighbor who said Schroen appeared quiet but friendly and would occasionally stop and say "hello."

The string of fires that Schroen is charged with setting began June 18 when firefighters were called to extinguish a burning mailbox and birdfeeder at his residence in the 2500 block of Melba Road, according to a statement of probable cause filed by prosecutors in Howard County District Court.

Two days later, fire crews returned to the same address for a brush fire near the backyard. Investigators questioned Schroen -- at which time he said he did not start the three fires, according to court documents.

The next day, firefighters battled a brush fire behind a different house in the same block. About 3 a.m. Aug. 18, a wooden shed at the same address was set on fire. According to court documents, Schroen approached the house and knocked on the door, asking to use a phone to call 911. The owner of the house told investigators that Schroen appeared intoxicated, according to court records.

Investigators questioned Schroen, and according to court documents, he allegedly gave investigators inconsistent answers, including initially denying that he called 911.

On Aug. 30, several days after fire crews battled another brush fire near the backyard of a home in the 2500 block of Melba Road, investigators met with Schroen again. According to court documents, Schroen admitted after 10 minutes of questioning that he set the fires and said he did it because "he wanted to see the fire trucks," the document said.

Schroen was a probationary member of the Ellicott City Volunteer Fire Department -- only on the force for a few months, according to Lars Leaf, the fire chief.

According to court documents, Schroen had been suspended from the department for "criminal activity." Fire officials could not provide the date Schroen was suspended, and Leaf declined to give the exact reason for the suspension.

Schroen was sentenced in April of this year to a year of probation for false imprisonment of his ex-girlfriend, according to records of that case in Carroll County District Court.

Leaf said a criminal background check was done for Schroen, as with all probationary firefighters who have to also take training before becoming a full member of the force, but the chief didn't know the results. Leaf said Schroen had received disciplinary action for not participating on the volunteer force.

Schroen's lack of participation prompted the Mount Airy Volunteer Fire Company to revoke his junior membership years ago. The junior program is for high school students between the ages of 14 to 16 who take part in firefighter training sessions.

"He came and joined and never showed up again," said Douglas Alexander, a spokesman for the Mount Airy volunteer company.

A high school classmate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, described Schroen as having many friends. Other than the 2002 auto shop incident, the classmate said he did not know about Schroen's being involved in any other fire incidents.

Efforts to reach Schroen's relatives at their homes and by telephone were unsuccessful.

Schroen has not filed for an attorney in his defense to the current charges, according to court documents.

Michael A. Mastracci, Schroen's defense attorney for the charges in 2002, said he was surprised at the charges.

"I always found him to be a very polite, friendly and likable guy, and I'm sorry to hear about his circumstances," Mastracci said.

Schroen is scheduled to enter a plea to the current charges during an arraignment in Howard County Circuit Court on Nov. 16.

tyrone.richardson@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Gina Davis and Laura McCandlish contributed to this article.

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