Lehigh Valley

2 men ordered to stand trial in rival business arson case

Defense tried to have charges dismissed

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - A Lehigh County judge ruled Tuesday that two men will stand trial on allegations of an arson-for-hire plot.

But whether the two would even face criminal charges first hung in the balance of a single missing page from the criminal complaint.

District Judge Patricia Engler ruled that Lehigh County prosecutors sufficiently made their case against Stefan A. Skweir and John A. Stettner to send arson and solicitation charges to county court. Authorities allege Skweir employed Stettner to find someone to burn down a rival gold buyer’s business in September 2011.

At the start of the hearing in Lehigh County Central Court, defense attorneys Gavin Holihan and John Waldron tried to get the charges against their respective clients tossed out, arguing a defective complaint.

Each complaint was missing the page signed by the investigator or police officer that verifies the information that serves as the basis for an arrest is “true and correct” to best of the officer’s knowledge. A district judge then also signs the page after reviewing the complaint.

The defense argued the complaints were invalid. The only way to remedy the problem was to withdraw the charges and re-file them.

But charges were filed on the last day before the five-year statute of limitations expired, meaning prosecutors couldn’t withdraw and re-file the complaint.

Assistant District Attorney Craig Scheetz argued the omission was “form over substance.” The balance of the criminal complaint included the charges against the defendants and laid out the evidence against Skweir and Stettner, he said, adding the statute of limitations has since expired.

“The fact it took the commonwealth five years to file a defective complaint does not give them leeway to file a defective complaint,” said attorney Gavin Holihan, who represents Skweir.

If the district judge who originally reviewed and signed the complaint had rejected it because it was incomplete, there would be no prosecution today because the statute of limitations would have expired, Holihan said.

Waldron, who represents Stettner, said the missing page is vital because it holds the threat of criminal charges, if authorities lie in a criminal complaint.

But Scheetz argued that adding the signed, but undated sheet to the complaint now is no different than changing the grade of a crime or correcting a section of the penal code referenced in a complaint after charges are filed.

The judge sided with the prosecution, noting that state law offers leeway to amend a complaint. But she was more vociferous in her contention that there was nothing prejudicial against the suspects on the missing page. They were fully aware of the charges and allegations lodged against them, Engler ruled.

After the hearing, Holihan said he planned on challenging the issue again with a county judge.

“Whether it’s a technicality is a matter for the judge and whether it matters is up the judge,” he said.

Waldron said he quickly plans to file pre-trial motions arguing prosecutors neither filed a valid complaint, nor made their primae facie case against Stettner.

As for the case itself, a Pennsylvania State Police fire marshal testified investigators found a rock thrown through the front window and the remnants of a melted plastic gasoline can near the display cases of AD Gold Exchange off Route 309 in North Whitehall Township.

The business owner, Alan Dennis, told investigators he suspected Skweir, who owned nearby A&S Coins, had a hand in the fire, according to court records. He alleged he’d been receiving harassing phone calls and emails since opening the store that has relocated.

Bonnie Junta, who worked at the AD Gold Exchange, testified that she’d been personally harassed by Skweir and that he did things like complain to the township zoning officer about a banner outside the business he claimed violated township zoning laws.

Detective Christopher Cruz, with the Lehigh County District Attorney’s Office, testified Stettner in a written statement said he provided Skweir with the name of someone who could harass the employees or damage the business. When that person didn’t pan out, he provided a second name, according to testimony.

Cruz testified that Skweir admitted in written and recorded statements that he spent more than $5,000 in a few payments to have someone follow Junta and then burn down the building. Skweir claimed in statements to investigators that he changed his mind and tried several times to contact the man to prevent anything from happening to the competitor.

Skweir reportedly said he didn’t contact police for fear the man would come after him, according to testimony. After the hearing, Scheetz said he couldn’t comment whether the person named in testimony Tuesday is facing criminal charges.

Holihan argued that none of the physical evidence from the fire connects Skweir to the fire. And he can’t be considered an accomplice because even if Skweir paid someone to torch the business he tried repeatedly to call it off, severing his complicity, Holihan said.

There was no requirement, for instance, for Skweir to contact police.

Authorities provided no link between Stettner and the fire or Junta, Waldron said. He also argued prosecutors failed to prove its case for arson or solicitation because Stettner did nothing more than provide Skweir with two names.

“He provided two names, that’s the extent of what he did,” Waldron said.

But that was enough to make Stettner complicit in the crime, Scheetz said. And it makes no difference whether Skweir tried to stop the arson, he said.

Skweir “got the ball rolling” once he handed over money for supplies and for someone to burn down the building, Scheetz said. That makes him responsible for their actions, he said.

Both men remain free after posting bail ahead of their formal arraignments.

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