New England Newspapers
BENNINGTON, Vt. -- Police say a local firefighter charged with arson told them he set fire to his wife's home to collect insurance money to pay for surgery that would allow her to become pregnant.
Capt. Ralph R. Brown Jr., 41, of the Bennington Fire Department was ordered held without bail Wednesday after pleading not guilty to five felonies, including two counts of first degree arson, arson with intent to defraud an insurer, conspiracy, and second degree aggravated domestic assault with injury.
Brown was held without bail on a violation of probation charge, stemming from a driving with a suspended license conviction. Judge David Suntag agreed to set $25,000 bail on the felony charges. Brown is scheduled to appear in Bennington District Court on Wednesday, March 10 for a hearing on the violation charge.
According to an affidavit by Bennington Police Detective David S. Rowland, on Feb. 26 at 11:46 a.m., the Bennington Fire Department was called to 217 Maple St. for a structure fire. Rowland said the house is owned by Stacey Brown, and that she, Ralph Brown, Joe Thomas, and a number of children live there. The fire was extinguished; no one was home at the time, and there were no injuries reported.
The Bennington Police Department said Thomas, 26, of Bennington, was arrested and charged Wednesday with first-degree arson and conspiracy to commit arson, while Stacey Brown, 34, was arrested and charged with aiding in the commission of a felony. Both were released on bail and are expected to appear in Bennington District court today to answer the charges.
Rowland said Bennington Fire Chief Tyler Hollister reported that the first fire appeared to have been electrical in nature and that it originated in the basement. The fire wasn't considered suspicious until Feb. 27, when the fire department was once again called to the home, at 10:41 a.m., for another reported fire on the second floor of the home, according to Rowland.
He said Vermont State Police Arson Investigators were then notified and called to the scene.
Rowland said that after the first fire, he spoke to a woman who knows Ralph Brown, who told him that there had been conversation between Brown and the homeowner about removing valuable pet birds on the evening before the fire.
Rowland said he spoke with Stacey Brown on March 2, the day the arson investigators were at the scene. According to the affidavit, Brown gave a written statement, saying that her husband had told the children that she and Thomas had set the fire.
According to the affidavit, Brown told Rowland that she was with Ralph Brown the following day at a gas station, and he told her he had crossed wires in the basement, starting the fire. She said that her husband told her he used a "small torch" to light the second fire on the second floor in the children's toy room.
In an affidavit filed by Bennington Police Detective Michael Plusch, Plush said he interviewed Thomas at the Bennington Police Department on March 2. According to the affidavit, Thomas said that on the day of the first fire, he, along with Stacey and Ralph Brown, were traveling around Bennington and stopped at the Vermont Department of Corrections Probation and Parole Office so that Ralph Brown could check in. He said they heard the tone alert for the Maple Street fire. Thomas said that Ralph Brown went to the scene of the fire, showed little emotion, and began to "boss" other firefighters around. He said that on the next day, the three of them and the children were traveling around Bennington again, and Ralph Brown asked to stop at the Maple Street home because he wanted to get dog food. Thomas said that they left Ralph Brown and took the children to a house so they could use the bathroom.
According to the affidavit, Thomas said that 10 minutes after he picked up Ralph Brown, a woman called him on his cell phone and told him the house was on fire again.
Plusch said he then interviewed Ralph Brown. According to the affidavit, Brown denied setting the fire, but then said he did not start the first fire, and that he was on the second floor of the home on the second day and extinguished a cigarette on the carpet, which may have been the cause.
According to the affidavit, Brown later said he started both fires because he wanted his wife to collect the insurance money so she could have a medical procedure that would allow her to become pregnant again. According to the affidavit, Ralph Brown said that he twisted wires above the furnace in the basement in order to start the first fire and used a propane torch to start the second fire on the second floor. Plusch said Ralph Brown was arrested and taken to the Bennington Police Station for further questioning. Plusch said that after being read his Miranda warnings, Brown said that he and Thomas had been planning the fire for some time. According to the affidavit, he said that Stacey Brown had heard some of the conversations, but thought the two were kidding.
According to the affidavit, Brown said that he and Thomas removed important or hard-to-replace items from the home on Feb. 25 and that the intention was not for the home to be a complete loss, but to only net enough from the insurance company to pay for his wife's surgeries. Ralph Brown said that he and Thomas first cut power to the furnace, wrapped the wires together and then melted the wire nuts on top of the wires, according to the affidavit. He said that after that, they turned the power back on and left when the wires arced. He said that 45 minutes later, they heard the tone go out for the fire over department radios.
Ralph Brown said that an insurance adjuster said the damage from the first fire was $40,000, which he said Thomas reported wasn't enough for the surgery and that a second fire should be started.
Plush said that Ralph Brown told him he and Thomas were dropped off at the residence on Feb. 27 to feed a dog chained out back. Brown said that several attempts to start a second fire were unsuccessful, and that Thomas attempted to light clothing on fire. He said that a piece of paper near a closet door finally caught and they left the building. According to the affidavit, Ralph Brown said that neither he nor Thomas wished to hurt anyone, only help Stacey Brown, whom he said knew nothing of the plan to burn the home. He said the propane torch would have both his and Thomas' fingerprints on it.