10/10/07 Investigator, Police Clerk on Trial for Torching Home

By Dawn S. Onley
Star-Ledger Staff

10/10/07

A Newark arson investigator and a civilian police employee are on trial in Essex County this week on charges they set a two-family home ablaze then tried to collect insurance money for the damages.

Abnathy Mason, a 25-year veteran of the Newark Fire Department owned the house at 96 S. 8th St. in Newark that was set on fire Dec. 7, 1996. Police said the fire was set in a vacant apartment but two families were inside the two-story building at the time. No one, however, was injured.

Rhona Harris, 40, who worked in the records and identification bureau of the Newark Police Department, also is being tried on arson charges for allegedly helping Mason. Harris apparently is a family friend.

Both Mason, 50, and Harris face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of all the charges--aggravated arson, conspiracy to commit arson and theft by deception.

Defense attorneys Joseph Rotella, who is representing Mason, and Steven Wukovits, representing Harris, wasted no time yesterday trying to poke holes in the way the case was initially investigated. They pointed out that several fire investigators and Essex County Sheriff's Office detectives told jurors that the building was never secured, even though a major investigation was under since the fire was initially deemed undetermined.

One fire captain also admitted on the stand yesterday that he later upgraded the cause of the fire to arson based entirely on witness testimony.

"After reading the statements from the reports, if I didn't do it, it would look like we were a part of some type of cover-up," the captain told the jurors.

He added under cross examination that he took no photographs of the crime scene and did not lift any fingerprints or footprints. This meant that potential pieces of evidence could have been tampered with by vagrants, defense attorneys said.

"You left an unsecured building with potential evidence?" Rotella probed further, before telling the captain the investigation was "cursory, not thorough."

Assistant Prosecutor Tom Carver maintains that Mason and Harris put innocent people at risk when they allegedly set the fire in an attempt to collect insurance money.

The indictment charges that the pair filed a false claim of $75,000 against the New Jersey Insurance Underwriters Association by "reinforcing a false impression...that the building was destroyed by fire that they had no knowledge of."

Both Mason and Harris were arrested in late July 1997, seven months after the incident. Both have been suspended from their jobs without pay.

Prosecutors have declined to say how Harris would have benefited in setting fire to a building that she did not own and they have never commented on why it took so long to charge the two.