News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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March 4, 2010

Accused arsonist faces multiple felony counts

Wagle accused of tossing Molotov cocktails to start fires

TERRE HAUTE — A man accused of using Molotov cocktails to set two fires in retaliation against a former girlfriend now faces felony arson charges related to fires that endangered six people, including two small children.

Joseph Andrew Wagle, 30, appeared in police custody in Vigo Superior Court 6 on Thursday, where Judge Pro Tem Brad Bough found probable cause for his arrest on four class-B felony arson charges and one class-A misdemeanor count of criminal mischief.

“This could easily be charges with six counts of attempted murder,” said arson investigator Norm Loudermilk prior to the court hearing.

Loudermilk said Wagle was aware that people would be asleep inside the home at 528 S. Seventh St., because Wagle had recently been kicked out of the residence by his former girlfriend. When the fire broke out, his former girlfriend was not at home. But her parents were asleep in the upstairs apartment, along with her two children, ages 4 months and 2 years.

“Had that landlord not had a smoke alarm, the two kids would be dead,” Loudermilk said. As it was, a family pet did die in the fire.

Loudermilk told the Tribune-Star that Wagle confessed to him Wednesday about arson fires on Feb. 27 and March 2 after Wagle was arrested on a warrant for a small claims case. Wagle was taken to Terre Haute Police headquarters, where he gave a voluntary statement about the arsons.

In the Feb. 27 incident, Wagle allegedly walked from his home in the 1500 block of North 26th Street to a Jiffy Mini Mart at 25th Street and Eighth Avenue where, Loudermilk said, he bought 50 cents worth of gasoline that he put into an empty 20-ounce Mountain Dew bottle. He then stoppered the bottle with a rag. Wagle’s actions were allegedly captured on video surveillance at the business.

With the loaded bottle in one pocket and a brick in another pocket, Loudermilk said, Wagle walked across the city to the home in the 500 block of South Seventh Street, where he allegedly threw the brick through a window in a stairwell. He then allegedly lit the Molotov cocktail and threw it through the broken window into some boxes and storage containers. The fire shot up the stairwell, Loudermilk said, trapping the upstairs occupants in their residence.

  One downstairs occupant of the duplex happened to be awake and heard the window crash when the brick was tossed. Moments later, he and his girlfriend saw smoke and escaped the dwelling.

Luckily, the woman asleep in the upstairs apartment heard the smoke detector and woke up her husband, Loudermilk said, and they grabbed the two grandchildren and exited onto a front porch balcony on the home. A cab driver who happened to be nearby saw the fire and assisted the family by catching the two grandchildren and helping the adults when they jumped from the balcony.

Shortly after the fire department arrived at the scene, the front porch collapsed, Loudermilk said. Fortunately, the firefighters had not yet advanced to the front porch, or they would have been injured by the falling debris.

Two days later, Wagle allegedly took the same action as he filled another pop bottle with gasoline and walked to a home in the 1800 block of North 23rd Street. Loudermilk testified in court that Wagle lit the rag in the gas-filled bottle and then placed it under the front seat of a 1979 Ford. That vehicle was used by the boyfriend of Wagle’s former girlfriend, Loudermilk said, and it was owned by the boyfriend’s mother. The fire from the auto spread to houses on either side of the burning car. Two people occupied one of the homes and were able to escape the fire. The other house happened to be vacant at the time.

Both of those homes received substantial damage, Loudermilk said, and the car was destroyed.

Authorities considered Wagle a suspect in the arsons because of his alleged recent harassment against the former girlfriend and her family, the arson investigator said. The victims cooperated with the investigation by helping lure him to the area with text messages, at which time police arrested him on the small claims warrant.

Some of the victims of the arsons appeared in the courtroom Thursday afternoon to witness Wagle’s hearing. However, two of those people were escorted from the courthouse prior to the hearing after verbal outbursts and gestures were exchanged with Wagle, who was handcuffed on the jail inmate chain.

The judge found probable cause for Wagle’s arrest and set his bail at $150,000 cash only. Charges are to be formalized Tuesday afternoon in court. Wagle was also ordered not to have any contact with any of the alleged victims or property owners involved.

Wagle has a criminal history that includes possession of a handgun without a license, possession of marijuana and receiving stolen property, and he has served prison time in the Indiana Department of Correction.

Meanwhile, one of the cab drivers who assisted in the rescue of the children happened to live near the incident on South Seventh Street.

Steve Rickard and Rena Lallow were making a shift change when they saw what they thought was a fire inside a hallway of the home.

“Within seconds, it was engulfed,” Lallow told the Tribune-Star on Thursday. She said she called 911 to report the fire while she and Rickard went up to the house to make sure people inside were alerted to the fire. The first-floor occupants exited, but the second-story occupants were trapped.

“She came to the balcony with the baby,” Lallow said of the grandmother, “and her husband climbed over and hung on with one arm while he took the baby from her and dropped it to Steve. Steve caught the baby and handed it to me, and then Steve caught the 2-year-old and set it down.”

Lallow said Rickard also helped catch the woman when she jumped from the balcony, but she did not see the man jump to safety.

“We could see the balcony was ready to drop,” Lallow said. “I was trying to get them away from there.”

She took the four out to the cab and turned on the heat, where they waited while arriving firefighters battled the blaze. “They weren’t hurt, so we sat there for a while.”

Lallow said she has been employed at the cab company for two years, while Rickard has worked there several years. “He said to me, ‘I caught ’em real soft’ about the babies,” Lallow said, recalling her co-worker’s comments following the rescue.

The actions of those two employees has been applauded by coworkers at Terre Haute Cab Co.

“It was a very, very good deed,” dispatcher Alonzo Van Horn said. “They happened to switch shifts at the right time, and they saw the fire.”

Lisa Trigg can be reached at (812) 231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com.

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