Women says she ignited mattress out of curiosity
By Greg Bock, email@example.com
POSTED: April 22, 2010
A homeless woman has been charged with arson for allegedly setting the blaze late Tuesday that destroyed a Juniata apartment building.
Hope L. Neff, 35, is accused by city police of starting the fire in the attic of one of the two apartments because she was "experimenting" and wanted to see "how fast a mattress would burn," court documents note.
The fire, at 616 N. Fourth Ave., started about 9:45 p.m. and left at least five people homeless, including an expectant couple with a 2-year-old boy, neighbor Adam Morrill said. Morrill said he was leaving in his car with friends to go to the store when they noticed flames across the street.
"The fire just started when we pulled out, and you could see the flames coming out the right side [of the building]," said Trista Adams, 22.
Morrill, 20, ran from the car and called 911 as he went into the building, Adams said.
Morrill said he didn't hear any smoke alarms when he got inside and started knocking on doors to alert the residents, even breaking down the door to the apartment next to where the fire started. The family inside didn't know what was going on, and their son was still asleep in the attic.
Neff was staying with the occupants of the other apartment and set the fire with a lighter, police allege. Morrill and Adams, as well as police, said Neff told bystanders that she set her mattress on fire as firefighters worked to put out the fully engulfed structure.
"Hope admitted she caught her mattress on fire," Morrill said.
"She basically went downstairs and didn't tell anybody," Adams said.
The police account, as described in court documents filed Wednesday in District Court, describes Neff as going downstairs from the attic after allegedly setting the mattress on fire. Police contend the occupants of the apartment where she was staying temporarily told them they saw her playing with the lighter, but she didn't tell anyone about the fire upstairs.
When questioned by police, Neff admitted to starting the fire out of curiosity, arrest papers note.
According to police, Altoona Fire Marshal Randal S. Isenberg estimated damage to the building, which is owned by John Muccitelli, to be between $350,000 and $500,000. Muccitelli could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Emergency shelter, food and clothing were provided by the Southern Alleghenies Chapter of the American Red Cross, chapter Executive Director Jane Gable said.
"We've made sure they have a roof over their heads at this point," said Gable, who said the Red Cross was actively working with other agencies to address the long-term needs of the two households.
The displaced residents have been put up in a motel and were given some money to buy enough food and clothes to meet their immediate needs, Gable said.
Sandy Schwabenbauer, owner of the adjacent Peterman's Florist, said the flower shop received calls all day about the blaze. She pointed out the flower shop wasn't damaged in the fire and is open as usual, although she did say it was sad to see a neighborhood landmark - the home of the former Fleck's Dress Shop - destroyed.
Schwabenbauer said her heart goes out to the Muccitelli family and the residents who lost their homes.
Neff was taken to Blair County Prison after her arraignment on charges of arson, risking a catastrophe, criminal mischief, recklessly endangering property through arson and possessing an instrument of crime. Magisterial District Judge Paula Aigner set Neff's bail at $300,000 cash.
Neff is slated to appear Wednesday in Central Court for a preliminary hearing.
Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458.
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