Ousted Northampton firefighter arrested in connection with string of barn fires


EASTON, Pa. | Expressing concern that a pair of accused arsonists haven't taken responsibility for their actions, a Northampton County judge on Friday rejected their proposed sentences and said they needed to serve "significantly" more jail time.

Judge Michael Koury rejected the agreed upon sentences for Justin A. Emmons and Samantha R. Keeney, who pleaded guilty to setting three barn fires in Lehigh and Allen townships and two car fires in Northampton Borough in March.

As part of their guilty pleas, the 24-year-old Keeney was set to serve 20 to 48 months in prison, while the now 20-year-old Emmons was set to serve 24 to 48 months. Both would have also been on probation following their releases.

After reviewing their pre-sentencing investigations, Koury said he was concerned neither Keeney nor Emmons were taking responsibility for their actions. The judge said Emmons "made light" of his conduct, and Keeney compared themselves to the infamous crime duo Bonnie and Clyde.

Koury asked Keeney whether she was aware of Bonnie and Clyde's criminal history that included robbery and murder.

"There is nothing admirable about Bonnie and Clyde," he said.

Keeney reportedly told a probation officer that she and Emmons set the fires because they were driving around and "were bored" and wanted to see why the matches they had were called "barn burners," according to the judge.

Koury paused for a moment to directly address Keeney, who appeared to be smiling.

"You're smiling now. So, you do think this is funny," the judge said.

Keeney nodded "no" in response.

The judge told the defense attorneys that he envisioned prison sentences two to three times longer than agreed upon as part of plea negotiations. Emmons and Keeney formally withdrew their guilty pleas on Friday, and the case was scheduled for trial in April.

Defense attorneys George Nassif and Mike Albanese said plea negotiations will continue. Assistant District Attorney Jim Augustine said he believes the case will eventually result in a new plea deal.

The judge said Keeney also made reference in the pre-trial investigation to a third person being involved. After the proceedings, Augustine said he'll ask police to look into whether a third person was involved in the arsons.

He noted, however, that the information is coming from defendants who have given investigators information only to turn around and later say something different. Whether a third person was involved doesn't affect Keeney and Emmons' responsibility for the crimes, Augustine said.

Nassif, Emmons' defense attorney, said his client is trying to put the matter behind him and "not necessarily go to trial." When he initially accepted the plea deal, Nassif said he thought it was a good result for his client and had some doubts about whether the judge would accept it.

"And today, the judge made it very clear he's not going along with it," Nassif said.

Albanese, Keeney's attorney, said he and his client were caught off guard by the judge's decision.

"He's well within his right to reject a plea deal, and he exercised that right," Albanese said, adding he'll continue to pursue a plea deal with prosecutors.

Neither Nassif, nor Albanese could characterize the relationship between Keeney and Emmons other than they were "buddies."

At the time of the Northampton County barn fires, firefighters responded to a barn fire in North Whitehall Township, Lehigh County. Augustine said Friday that investigators suspected the pair in that fire but were unable to definitively tie them to the blaze. That fire remains unsolved.

He said restitution in the case will be in the "hundreds of thousands of dollars."

In September, Keeney pleaded guilty to a single count of arson and three counts of conspiracy to causing a catastrophe. Emmons, a former member of the Northampton Fire Department, pleaded guilty to three counts of conspiracy to causing a catastrophe and single counts of arson, criminal mischief and reckless endangerment. He also pleaded guilty in a separate case to marijuana possession and driving without a license.

Emmons had been fired from the Northampton Fire Department about a year before his arrest.

The Lehigh Township Volunteer Fire Co. responded to the first fire about 1:30 a.m. March 15 in the 3600 block of Cedar Drive in Lehigh Township, Northampton County. Authorities said the fire appeared suspicious because of where the fire started and that the possible sources of the blaze were limited, according to court records.

A Lehigh Township police officer who responded to the fire and conducted interviews with his body camera interviewed Emmons, according to records. He told investigators that he and Keeney were driving to a friend's house, when they saw the flames and drove to the fire.

On March 23, Lehigh Township firefighters responded to another fire in the 700 block of Fir Drive, which investigators said bore a striking resemblance to the Cedar Drive fire. It was about a mile away at a barn that was very close to the street with “limited ignition sources,” according to authorities.

Police said video surveillance from a neighbor showed the same vehicle driving back and forth on the normally desolate road 13 times before and after the fire. The victim's son also reported seeing a dark SUV near the top of the driveway at the time of the fire.

State police learned of another fire in the 1300 block of Clearview Road in North Whitehall Township, Lehigh County, on March 24. The large barn was also close to the road, and police said a freelance photographer spoke with and snapped a photo of Emmons, who was at the fire.

Investigators said there was no electricity at the Clearview Road barn, meaning it has limited fire sources.

A fourth fire broke out at a roadside barn in the 4400 block of Cherryville Road in Allen Township, Northampton County. A passerby reported the fire and another passerby managed to put it out. Investigators said they found two points of origin for that fire.

The investigation revealed that Emmons previously worked and lived with Glen Heiny, a victim of two of the fires. Authorities said Heiny did not have his own barn, so the family stored crops and equipment at the Cedar Drive and Fir Drive barns.

Witnesses reported seeing Emmons and Keeney in a black Hyundai Santa Fe the night of the first two fires. Home surveillance footage of the Fir Drive fire allegedly showed a dark SUV repeatedly driving up and down the road about 1 a.m. the night of the blaze, according to police.

Authorities said they investigated a March 29 brush fire in Lehigh Township on Quince Road near Timberline Road and recovered several stormproof survival matches.

During an interview with investigators, Emmons allegedly admitted that he and Keeney were responsible for the Fir Drive and Clearview Road fires along with a vehicle fire being investigated by Northampton Borough police.