By Brian T. Murray and Kinga Borondy
A Newark arson investigator has been charged by the Essex County Prosecutor's Office with setting fire to an occupied, two-family home in December.
Veteran firefighter Abnathy A. Mason, a 50-year-old paid member of the Newark Fire Department, is accused of setting a blaze that sent tenants running from a South 8th Street building which he owns, authorities said yesterday. Two families were inside the 2-1/2 story building at the time, but no one was injured and the fire was quickly contained.
"The charges are being denied and any statement will be forthcoming from our attorney," said Mason when questioned about the arson allegations last night.
Prosecutors would not discuss details last night, including the charges and alleged motive. But at the time of the blaze, authorities said it was considered suspicious and within days the prosecutor's office assumed control of a probe that had been started by the Newark arson unit. Mason was arrested Monday night.
Neighbors around the burned home told authorities and The Star-Ledger shortly after the fire that they had seen Mason leaving the building just before the blaze erupted. He has remained on the job, although authorities said yesterday that he ha been transferred out of the arson unit, where he has worked for several years.
Mason has been a firefighter for 27 years, and his post as a certified arson investigator gave him full police powers. He also has been a frequently honored member of the force.
Mason was a recipient of the department's Community Service Award because of his long list of public activities, both on and off duty. He had served on the board of directors of the Young People's Institute, helped to coordinate the department's minority recruitment program and he was involved in the department's annual Fire Prevention Poster Contest, which is done in cooperation with public and parochial schools.
The city's fire department has more than 700 firefighters, including Mason's 28-year-old son, Abnathy Mason, Jr., who became a recruit last year.
City Fire Director Stanley Kossup was not available for comment last night. His wife said he had not yet arrived home last night from a trip south. The prosecutor's probe, and the fact that Mason was a target, had been widely known among city firefighters for months.