Man pleads guilty in church arson, other blazes

| October 5, 2010

DELHI — One of the men involved in starting a fire that destroyed the Sidney Center United Methodist Church and other blazes that occurred from April to October 2009 pleaded guilty in Delaware County Court on Monday.

Supreme Court Justice Michael V. Coccoma accepted a plea agreement in which Donald J. Aitken, 23, of East Meredith, admitted starting seven fires.

Aitken pleaded guilty to seven felony counts of third-degree arson. Each count carries a sentence of one to three years that will be served consecutively.

According to the terms of the plea agreement, Aitken will serve a prison sentence of seven to 21 years and must pay $1,036,369 in restitution. Aitken also agreed to testify against his co-defendant, Cody D. Fancher, 18, of Meredith.

Aitken and Fancher were arrested Oct. 7 for their involvement in the seven fires.

Aitken and Fancher were both charged with seven counts of third-degree arson, five counts of third-degree burglary, three counts of second-degree burglary, three counts of third-degree criminal mischief, and one count of second-degree arson, petit larceny, fifth-degree attempted arson and first-degree reckless endangerment.

Fancher's trial is scheduled to begin in December.

During the plea, Aitken explained that he drove Fancher to the locations of the fires but said he did not start the fires.

The first fire was April 16 at the home of Mario Fuscillo in Hamden. Aitken said he and Fancher were driving around.

"Mr. Fancher mentioned he wanted to start a fire," Aitken said. "We were on a dirt road in Hamden and he saw a house and said 'this is perfect.'"

Aitken said Fancher broke a window and entered the house.

"He had a soda bottle in his hand with something in it. I don't know where he got it," Aitken said. "I saw smoke and flames and went to the window because he hadn't come out yet. I told him to get out because we had to get going."

Aitken said June 19 he drove Fancher to the home of Monty and Roxanne Hitchcock in Meredith. He said Fancher broke a window at the back of the house and went in while Aitken stayed outside and acted as a lookout.

"On the night of the Hitchcock fire, Mr. Fancher said he wanted to light a house on fire and I said, 'Do what you want to do,'" Aitken said.

Three fires took place Sept. 11 beginning in Stamford in a gravel pit where Aitken said he went to "play in the mud with my truck." Aitken said Fancher lit a fire in a 1988 Chevy pickup truck owned by Delaware Bulldozing that was parked at the gravel pit.

Aitken said they then drove to Kortright, where they stopped to burglarize a home owned by John and Eve Krupka. Aitken said he was outside watching through a window when he saw Fancher light the fire.

They then drove to the home of Mary Puma on Elk Creek Road in Meredith, where Aitken said he pulled behind the house. He said Fancher once again broke a window and entered the house.

"I saw him light a curtain on fire," Fancher said.

On Oct. 1, Aitken said they were driving around when Fancher said he wanted to burglarize the Sidney Center United Methodist Church. Aitken said Fancher took a gas can out of the back of the truck and splashed gas around the church. Aitken said he held a torch while Fancher lit it and then watched Fancher light the fire.

Aitken said when they drove away from the burning church, Fancher said there was more gas, so they stopped on a dead end back road in Sidney and burned Rocco Innamorato's barn.

"Cody set fire to the hay mow on the left side," Aitken said.

Coccoma cancelled Aitken's $20,000 bail and ordered him held without bail to await sentencing. He tentatively set sentencing for Jan. 14.

Fancher is free on $10,000 bail and is living with his stepfather in Meredith.

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