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Citing Fatal Fire In Homer, Seward Acts To Strengthen Arson Statutes

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Cortland County Sheriff’s Capt. Robert Derksen, District Attorney Patrick Perfetti, Homer Police Chief Robert Pitman, Senator James Seward, Homer Fire Chief Mahlon Irish, Jr., and Homer Fire Chief Bob Johnson attend the announcement at the Homer Fire station of legislation to strengthen the state’s arson statutes. (photo provided)

State Senator James Seward joined police and fire officials on Thursday at the Homer Fire station to announce legislation to increase criminal penalties for individuals who cause a fire or explosion while manufacturing illegal drugs.

This legislation was crafted in the wake of a fatal fire that claimed the life of a Homer man, Dewayne Block, on September, 2, 2016.

Seward referenced Brian Bermudez, who pleaded guilty to charges connected to the fatal fire.

“There was no way to charge this defendant on the arson laws in New York State, which would have significantly upped the penalties,” said Senator Seward. “That’s a major omission in New York State law.”

Brian Bermudez (Homer Police Dept photo)

Homer Police Chief Robert Pitman helped initiate the proposed change. “Part of the reason why I started the correspondence with the Senator to change that arson statute…we’re hoping that people would give a thought about making the stuff in an occupied building.”

Cortland County District Attorney Patrick Perfetti said Bermudez could not be charged with arson or felony murder. “The law punished him to the maximum extent possible which was a sentence of 5-15 years, but in light of the backdrop of the loss of life that occurred here, myself and Chief Pitman felt that was quite insufficient,” said Perfetti.

“This is really in honor of Mr. Block, who lost his life,” said Chief Pitman, “as well as the firefighters, the police officers and the first responders that are going in to these fires, not realizing they’re just being exposed to even more toxic chemicals.”

That the law change may serve as a deterrent appeals to the Homer Fire Chief, Mahlon Irish, Jr. “We had firefighters entering that building to try to get to Mr. Block. We could have very easily lost some firefighters and the same would have applied. It would not have been an arson, or murder, or anything of such, based on the way the law is written today.”

Senator Seward’s legislation would make it a felony for persons convicted of causing a fire or explosion during a drug manufacturing process.

“We need that to help curb this very disturbing trend that we’ve seen, unfortunately right here in Cortland County, with the large number of meth labs that are in Cortland County,” said Seward.

Seward will sponsor the bill in the Senate and will work to find a sponsor in the Democrat-controlled Assembly.

Rear of the building shortly after the fire was reported. (WXHC photo Sep 2, 2016)

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