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Serial arsonist's claims denied, Jermyn woman's guilt in 2008 arson affirmed

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Lackawanna County Judge Vito P. Geroulo has denied a Jermyn woman's petition for relief from her sentence in a 2008 arson to which she confessed and pleaded guilty.

Holly Dougher of Jermyn filed the petition seeking post-conviction relief in August after an article in The Times-Tribune reported serial arsonist Stephen Giacobbe's confession last year to both state police and the newspaper that he set the fire.

Citing what he saw as Mr. Giacobbe's "false bravado," Judge Geroulo wrote in his memorandum and order filed Monday that the serial arsonist's testimony during a Nov. 14 evidentiary hearing in Ms. Dougher's petition for post-conviction relief was "totally deficient of credibility."

"While it is a rare individual who will admit under oath to a felony which he did not commit, it was clear to this court that Mr. Giacobbe's testimony was motivated by a desire to rehabilitate his reputation among fellow inmates by painting himself as an arch criminal," Judge Geroulo wrote.

State police investigators began to revisit the case after Mr. Giacobbe confessed to setting the Dec. 15, 2008 fire at 1 Meredith St., Carbondale Twp., in a three-hour interview with state police fire marshals on May 18 and in both a letter to The Times-Tribune dated June 13 and an interview with the newspaper at the Lackawanna County Prison.

But Ms. Dougher had already confessed to setting the fire, according to court documents, and on Jan. 26, 2010, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor counts of failure to report an arson and reckless endangerment while the two felony counts against her - arson and reckless burning or exploding - were dropped.

One arson, two confessions

Fifty firefighters from seven companies had to battle the blaze that completely engulfed the home under construction on Meredith Street in the early morning hours of Dec. 15, 2008, according to court documents.

The evening after the fire, Carbondale Twp. police responded to Valley View Lanes, which is next door to the scene of the fire, where an employee reported receiving an anonymous call indicating that Joe Sparrow, Mike Cicio and Pete Lloyd were involved in the fire.

Investigators determined that Mr. Sparrow and Mr. Lloyd were not involved in the arson, though Mayfield Police Chief Joseph Perechinsky found during an interview with Mr. Cicio on Dec. 17, 2008, that he knew how the blaze began, according to court documents.

Mr. Cicio indicated during the interview that he was playing video games with Mr. Lloyd and Ms. Dougher at his home the night of the fire, according to court documents.

Later that night, Mr. Cicio and Ms. Dougher - who was carrying a red gas can - took a walk toward Carbondale and eventually came upon the home under construction at 1 Meredith St., Carbondale Twp.

There, Ms. Dougher told Mr. Cicio that she was going to set the house on fire, splashed gas on the structure and ignited it with a lighter, according to court documents.

Mayfield police interviewed Ms. Dougher on Dec. 17 and, though she initially denied setting the fire, she eventually indicated that she had splashed gas on the building, lit the fire and later returned to the scene to watch firefighters battling the blaze.

Following her guilty plea, Ms. Dougher was sentenced on March 17, 2010, to a minimum of four months incarceration for each of the two misdemeanor charges against her and was released for time served, according to court documents.

A little more than a year after Ms. Dougher's release, state police arrested Mr. Giacobbe for a string of arsons across the region and interviewed him on May 18 last year.

During the interview, Mr. Giacobbe outlined his life spent setting fires starting as a child, continuing until his arrest on April 25 and including the Meredith Street blaze.

About a month later, Mr. Giacobbe also told The Times-Tribune in an interview at the Lackawanna County Prison and in a letter sent to the newspaper that he had set the fire.

"I did it," he wrote in his June 13 letter. "I unrolled a roll of tar paper and lit it."

During his initial investigation of the building's remnants on Dec. 15, 2008, Trooper Kaneski found that the building's only contents consisted of "rolled tar paper on the first floor," according to court documents.

Moreover, during his investigation of the fire scene, Trooper Kaneski said he did not find any evidence of an accelerant, though he later told The Times-Tribune that is not uncommon even in fires when accelerants are used.

Mr. Giacobbe - who later received a maximum total of 50 years incarceration for fires set in Lackawanna and Wayne counties - said in interviews with The Times-Tribune that he prides himself on not using accelerants in his fires.

Conflicting testimony

Following the June 18 story in The Times-Tribune reporting Mr. Giacobbe's claims, Attorney Eugene J. Doud filed a Post Conviction Relief Act petition on behalf of Ms. Dougher citing the article as evidence of Ms. Dougher's innocence in the case.

Mr. Doud argued in the petition that the story showed that Ms. Dougher "is not guilty of any such arson-related charges."

"The evidence (Ms. Dougher) is presenting proves her actual innocence … and shows that a miscarriage of justice has taken place that no civilized society can tolerate," Mr. Doud wrote.

Judge Geroulo later granted an evidentiary hearing in the case and, on Nov. 14, heard testimony from Mr. Giacobbe, Mr. Cicio and State Police Fire Marshals Kaneski and John Chervanka.

Upon questioning by Mr. Doud and former Lackawanna County Deputy District Attorney Maryann Grippo, Mr. Giacobbe recalled certain details of the night of the fire but on several occasions could only offer "I don't know", "I don't remember", "I'd be guessing" or "I couldn't tell you" as answers to more specific questions.

He claimed he set the fire in the basement, though Trooper Kaneski's testimony held that the fire had actually begun on the home's first floor, a conclusion reached after an origin and cause investigation following the blaze.

One thing Mr. Giacobbe did not forget during his testimony was his motive for setting the Meredith Street fire.

He remembered perfectly well that he didn't have one.

Guilt affirmed

On Monday, Judge Geroulo issued his decision in Ms. Dougher's petition, writing that Mr. Giacobbe's spotty recollection, lack of a motive and apparent desire to glorify himself as an "arch criminal" outweighed his assertion that he had set the fire.

"In the eyes of this court, the false bravado destroyed any shred of credibility," he wrote.

Ms. Dougher's prior confession, Mr. Cicio's eyewitness testimony and the physical evidence recovered during the investigation "cannot be undone by Mr. Giacobbe's testimony, which absolutely defied belief," Judge Geroulo wrote.

Though Ms. Dougher was released on time served at the time of her sentencing in 2010, the $126,103.66 of restitution she was ordered to pay as part of her sentence remains outstanding.

Reached Thursday, Mr. Doud said that he and Ms. Dougher intend to investigate her options to "secure the relief that would be appropriate for her."

"We were reasonably confident that it would have gone the other way," he said. "Needless to say we're disappointed."

Contact the writer: Timeline

- Dec. 15, 2008: Flames engulf 1 Meredith St., Carbondale Twp.; blaze ruled arson. Tip leads police to Holly Dougher.

- Dec. 17, 2008: Ms. Dougher confesses to arson in interview with Mayfield police.

- Jan. 26, 2010: Ms. Dougher pleads guilty to misdemeanor counts of failure to report an arson and reckless endangerment. Felony arson and reckless burning or exploding charges dropped.

- March 17, 2010: Ms. Dougher is sentenced to minimum of eight months' incarceration, released for time served.

- April 25, 2011: Stephen Giacobbe is arrested in Throop by borough police for unrelated burglary, later charged with several arsons and burglaries by various agencies.

- May 18, 2011: Mr. Giacobbe confesses to string of arsons, including Meredith Street blaze, in interview with state police.

- June 13, 2011: Mr. Giacobbe reiterates confession in letter to The Times-Tribune.

- June 18, 2011: Article in The Times-Tribune outlines Mr. Giacobbe's claims.

- Aug. 15, 2011: Attorney Eugene J. Doud files Post Conviction Relief Act petition citing the article as evidence of Ms. Dougher's innocence.

- Sept. 14, 2011: Mr. Giacobbe pleads guilty to various charges, including eight counts of arson in unrelated cases, in Lackawanna County Court.

- Nov. 14, 2011: Conflicting testimony is heard in evidentiary hearing in post-conviction relief petition.

- Dec. 13, 2011: Mr. Giacobbe is sentenced to 20 to 40 years in state prison by Lackawanna County Judge Michael Barrasse.

- Feb. 16, 2012: Mr. Giacobbe is sentenced to 4½ to 10 years in state prison in Wayne County.

- March 14: Second hearing is held in Ms. Dougher's petition.

- Monday: Lackawanna County Judge Vito P. Geroulo issues memorandum and order denying Ms. Dougher's petition.

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