By Brian T. Murray
A civilian police employee has been charged with helping veteran Newark firefighter Abnathy Mason set the December blaze that ripped through an occupied apartment building he owns, authorities revealed yesterday.
Insurance money was the motive, according to the Essex County Prosecutor's Office, which confirmed yesterday that Rhona Harris, a 40-year old employee of the city police department's records and identification bureau, was arrested a week ago in the case. Prosecutors have been so tight-lipped on the arrests that even the city police department was unaware until yesterday that Harris was charged.
"She'll be suspended tomorrow," said Sgt. Derek Glenn, a police spokesman, explaining that Harris has worded for the department since October 1995.
"Action wasn't taken earlier because we didn't know. She didn't notify us, which she is supposed to do...but neither did the prosecutor's office, " he added.
Mason, a 25-year veteran of the fire department with the rank of captain and an arson investigator for the past several years, was not arrested until Monday. The 50-year old firefighter was immediately suspended without pay after being released on a $50,000 recognizance bond--the same bail set on Harris.
Harris and Mason were described as friends, and both are charged with aggravated arson, conspiracy to commit arson and theft by deception in connection with insurance that Mason collected on the 2-1/2 story building at 96 S. Eighth St. in Newark. The structure, where two families had lived, has been owned by Mason and his wife, Marva, since September 1986, when it was purchased for $50,000.00.
Ray Weiss, a spokesman for the prosecutor's office, declined to give details on how Harris would benefit from burning a building she did not own. But he did say his office, which assumed jurisdiction over the probe only days after the fire, has uncovered evidence strong enough to charge both people with the blaze.
"I can't be specific on why it (the arrests) happened after seven months. But they eventually developed enough information that they felt they had enough grounds for a formal charge," Weiss explained.
Lawyers for both suspects were skeptical.
"My client believes the state's not going to be able to prove its case...He's quite surprised. It's been seven months since the fire and no one has tried to speak to him about this," said attorney Joseph Rotella, who is representing Mason.
"He was told in the beginning that it was a suspicious fire. No one's talked to him since," the lawyer added. Steven Wukovits, the attorney for Harris, said his client and Mason became targets only because the case was getting old and investigators were under pressure to solve it. No one was injured in the fire. But because people were inside when it erupted, prosecutors leveled charges of aggravated arson, which carry penalties of up to 10 years in prison upon conviction. Fire officials and the prosecutor's office have prevented Mason from repairing the home since the fire, so it has remained empty and is decaying, said Rotella.