Case in ’95 firefighter deaths may move to federal court

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The case against a man accused of having started a Pittsburgh blaze that killed three firefighters two decades ago may be moving to federal court.

The Allegheny County district attorney’s office turned the case over to federal prosecutors who last week obtained an indictment against Gregory Brown Jr. on a charge of malicious destruction of property resulting in death. That carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.

Defense attorney Dave Fawcett called the move “gamesmanship,” and attorney Jason Hazlewoood said he thought it was an attempt to further delay the trial and keep Brown incarcerated. They had sought dismissal of the case, arguing that the first trial was marred by prosecutorial misconduct and their client shouldn’t be retried.

Brown, 39, had been convicted in 1997 of three second-degree murder counts. Prosecutors alleged that he poured a half-gallon of gasoline on some clothes in the basement of the four-story home and started the blaze in hopes of collecting $20,000 in insurance money for a down payment on a new home. Pittsburgh fire Capt. Thomas Brooks, 42, and firefighters Marc Kolenda, 27, and Patricia Conroy, 43, suffocated when their air tanks ran out as they tried to escape the rapidly burning home, authorities said.

The conviction was thrown out after the defense said prosecutors and a federal agent failed to turn over evidence that witnesses were offered money in exchange for their testimonies.

Brown was scheduled to go on trial again in January, but prosecutors turned over jurisdiction to the federal courts, which District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. called “a better forum for evidentiary purposes.”

“We’ve been surprised by some of the rulings in the state system on the law,” he said. A hearing in state court is expected Tuesday on the district attorney’s motion to withdraw the state charges.

The district attorney’s office had asked Common Pleas Judge Joseph K. Williams III to recuse himself, alleging bias stemming from an interaction with a Bureau of Alcohol , Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent a dozen years ago while he was still working as an attorney. That agent is expected to testify in the current case.

U.S. Attorney David Hickton said in a statement Friday that “substantial questions have been raised which undermine confidence in a retrial in state court.”