Matt Rourke  /  AP file
Broken windows and stains from smoke are seen in the aftermath of a January fire that damaged or destroyed a row of 15 homes, in Coatesville, Pa.
updated 2/20/2009 7:43:16 PM ET 2009-02-21T00:43:16

Police found accelerants, firefighting equipment and a newspaper article about the arsons plaguing a small steel town at the home of a wannabe firefighter they arrested while investigating the crimes, federal prosecutors said.

Mark Gilliam is charged only with a fire at a Thorndale restaurant hours after the torching of 15 row houses in nearby Coatesville, an economically struggling town of about 11,000 people. A former classmate is charged with the row houses blaze and several others in the town, which is 35 miles west of Philadelphia.

Gilliam, 19, applied this month to join the West Bradford Fire Co., in Chester County, but was rejected. Still, the stocky, tattooed teenager, who prosecutors said had bought firefighting gear and drove a car illegally equipped with strobe lights to make it appear he was a firefighter, wore a shirt adorned with the department’s gold crest at a brief federal court appearance Friday afternoon.

“Mark Gilliam is clearly someone who was very interested in being a firefighter, and he was very interested in fires,” U.S. Attorney Laurie Magid said.

Another teen, Roger Barlow Jr., was charged Thursday with setting nine fires in Coatesville in a five-week period this year, including the one that destroyed the row houses on Jan. 24 and put dozens of people out of their homes.

Barlow, 19, told investigators that Gilliam, a former vocational school classmate, joined him in the crime spree, although he later retracted the statement in a phone call with Gilliam, according to a federal agent’s affidavit filed Friday.

With dozens of Coatesville’s 66 arsons since January 2008 still unsolved, investigators hope to learn more about Gilliam and Barlow, who met about two years ago, Magid said Friday.

Gilliam, of West Chester, did not enter a plea at his Friday court appearance. A judge ordered him held until a Feb. 27 bail and probable cause hearing. Defense lawyer Richard E. Meanix said only that Gilliam is presumed innocent.

Barlow, of Downington, told police that Gilliam admitted setting the Jan. 25 fire at the Happy Days Family Bistro and did not retract that part of his statement, prosecutors said. The fire was reported at around 4 a.m. in a ceiling tile of the men’s bathroom.

Dad: 'It's just not him'
Gilliam approached firefighters at the scene and stayed around for hours afterward, authorities said. When asked whether he was a firefighter, he said yes and pointed to his shirt, which had a West Bradford Fire Co. emblem on it, they said.

“Gilliam stated that he was tired because he was running with the fires in Coatesville all night,” according to an affidavit signed by special agent Jesse Lampf, of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

A witness told investigators he saw a man fumbling with the ceiling tiles early that morning and picked Gilliam out of a photo array.

Barlow’s father, Roger Barlow Sr., works part time at a fire department catering hall, but he said that neither he nor his son was a firefighter. He suggested his son, whom he described as learning disabled, was a follower and had no ties to Coatesville nor any propensity toward violence or hatred.

“It’s just not him,” the father said.

Meanix represented Gilliam in a 2007 Chester County case, in which he was sentenced to a short jail term for criminal trespass. Also, Phoenix police investigated Gilliam over a homemade explosive device in March 2006, according to the affidavit, which didn’t indicate that any charges were filed.

Coatesville has tallied 66 arsons since the beginning of 2008 by Magid’s count, up from a recent estimate of 44, one of them fatal. In December, authorities arrested three people believed to have been responsible for some of the arsons, including a December blaze that killed an 83-year-old woman.

Many residents have been sleeping with at least one eye open since the fires began, and dozens remain out of their burned homes.

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