Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
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Monday, June 16, 2014
Cops: Convicted Bensalem felon set own house on fire
Posted: Thursday, June 12, 2014
A 54-year-old with a criminal past is accused of setting fire to his Bensalem home earlier this year in an attempt to secure an insurance payout to support his gambling habit.
But at an arraignment Thursday on charges of arson, insurance fraud and reckless endangering, the attorney representing John Chairmonte claimed the case against his client is based on only “suspicion.”
“Suspicions don’t make it,” attorney Nicholas Mancini said.
But Bensalem police believe they have more than suspicions about Chairmonte’s involvement in the Feb. 10 fire that heavily damaged his Windsor Drive home, the third suspicious fire there since 2011.
No one was home at the time of the most recent fire. Chairmonte’s mother, who lived at the home, left about 2½ hours before the fire started after an argument with her son brought police to the home. But two neighbors — ages 68 and 75 — were injured after tripping over a fire engine supply hose while being evacuated from their home, police said.
Bensalem fire investigator Robert Sponheimer ruled the fire as an arson that started on a kitchen counter. The fire started after an open flame ignited flammable material on the counter near a coffee maker, according to an affidavit of probable cause.
Chairmonte claimed he left the coffee maker on when he left his home — with his two dogs — around 8 a.m. to go to a nearby bank, police said. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives examined the burned coffee maker and a second machine and carafe found in the oven and found no electrical malfunctions, the affidavit shows.
Bank surveillance video showed Chairmonte arrived at 8:15 a.m. and remained at a drive-through ATM for 11 minutes, according to the affidavit. Around 8:30 a.m., Chairmonte parked his car and confronted a bank employee, who told police he became upset the bank didn’t open until 9 a.m.
In his subsequent investigation, Bensalem Detective Stephen Clark said he found Chairmonte was experiencing financial problems and had withdrawn more than $3,300 from ATMs, mostly at nearby Parx Casino, in the weeks before the fire. Days before the fire, he had $226 left in his checking account and a negative balance on his savings account, police said.
Police looked at Chairmonte’s recent Parx player card activity, which showed that he won $2,700 at the Street Road casino four days before the February fire and subsequently withdrew more than $2,000 after winning, court document said.
Clark believes that Chairmonte planned to use the insurance payout to cover expenses and support his gambling habit, according to the affidavit.
Court documents alleged Chairmonte had financial problems around the time of a March 2011 fire, which was later ruled arson. Bank records showed in the month before the fire he withdrew about $6,000 out of ATMs including one at Parx before the fire, leaving him with a negative balance on the account, court documents show.
Investigators determined the earlier fire started in a trash can in the home, but found no evidence of Chairmonte’s suggestion that it could have started after a candle was placed in the trash, according to a probable cause affidavit. At the time, the house had no electric service, police said.
While no one has been arrested in the 2011 arson, the case remains open and Chairmonte is a suspect, Clark said.
Bensalem District Judge Joseph Falcone set Chairmonte’s bail at 10 percent of $250,000.
John Chairmonte in 1980
Chairmonte is currently living with a relative in Warminster.
After learning of his impending arrest recently, Chairmonte tried to commit suicide by driving his car into a wall after consuming 60 unknown pills, Clark said. He was involuntarily committed to a mental health hospital, where he allegedly made threats against law enforcement including a bomb threat, which Falcone called “very disturbing.”
The morning of the February fire, police found a disassembled firearm in a trashcan at the home, Clark said.
Chairmonte’s criminal history stretches back three decades and includes a 2000 conviction for aggravated and simple assault and reckless endangerment, police said.
In March 1980 Chairmonte — then a 20-year-old admitted drug addict — was arrested in the shooting of the wife of his former Bensalem High School special education teacher. Chairmonte claimed the teacher offered him $800 to pull the trigger.
Loretta Todt, who was shot in the face, survived, but lost an eye. Her husband, Robert, was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in a state prison after being convicted in 1981 of attempted murder, criminal solicitation and conspiracy.
Chairmonte struck a plea deal with prosecutors, agreeing to testify against Todt, in exchange for no more than five years in prison.
In 1981, the late Bucks County Judge Issac Garb sentenced Chairmonte to no more than four years saying he had a serious learning disability “which makes him prey to people such as Todt and because he has shown remorse for the crime,” according to a Courier Times article.