By Brian T. Murray
Veteran Newark arson investigator Abnathy Mason, who is charged with burning down an apartment building he owned, is being prosecuted on the word of a disgruntled tenant who was facing eviction, a defense lawyer charged yesterday.
"The tenant was in the process of being evicted, and therefore had a motive to be less than truthful," said defense attorney Joseph Rotella. "The state has no direct evidence that Capt. Mason set, participated in the fire being set, or conspired with another to do so."
Mason, 50, was indicted two weeks ago. He has been with the Newark Fire Department for 27 years and spent the past five years as an arson investigator with the authority to carry a gun and make arrests. Now Mason is suspended from his job and faces charges of arson, theft by deception and conspiracy in connection with a Dec. 7 blaze that destroyed a 2-1/2 story building at 96 S. Eighth St., which Mason and his wife, Marva, had purchased in 1986 for $50,000.
No one was injured, but two families were living in the building at the time and authorities immediately began to suspect arson. However, the Essex County Prosecutor's Office did not arrest Mason until July 28, charging him with setting the blaze and filing a false claim of $75,000 with the New Jersey Insurance Underwriters Association.
Mason, who maintains his innocence, is accused of conspiring with 40-year-old Rhona Harris, a friend and a civilian police employee in the records and identification bureau, who also is suspended. Sh was arrested before Abnathy on July 25, but prosecutors operated so secretly on the case that even the Newark police were not informed of the charges against Harris until after Abnathy was taken into custody.
Prosecutors have declined to say how Harris would have benefited in setting fire to a building which she did not own, and they have declined comment on why it took so long to charge the two. A spokesman could not be reached for comment yesterday, but the office has repeatedly contended that the case took time to investigate and culminated in information that merited the arrest of both suspects.