New details emerge in Knappenberger case
Some of the details in an alleged case of arson and seven counts of attempted homicide came out in court on Wednesday.
At a preliminary hearing for Jackson K. Knappenberger, 25, of Warren, witnesses connected him to a Dec. 27 gasoline fire at a home in Sugar Grove Township.
The homeowner, one of seven people home at the time of the fire, was the first witness to be called by Warren County District Attorney Rob Greene.
In order to help protect the identities of other victims, the Times Observer is not publishing the owner’s name.
“We just got done with supper, next thing I know, my nine-year-old son was screaming (that) my house is on fire,” he said of the night in question.
He said flames were coming in around the front door and when he opened the door they “shot up in my face.”
Family members attempted to put the fire out, then found, “another spot in the back,” he said. “From one side to the other, the whole trailer was on fire.”
He said he knew from the action of the fire — that explosion when he opened the door — that “it wasn’t just a fire, it was set by somebody. When it goes ‘boom’ it’s not a cigarette, it’s gasoline or something.”
The homeowner testified that family members had the fire out in about 15 to 20 minutes. He went outside, got on his ATV, and had a look around. “I saw walking steps coming in and running steps going out,” he said.
He followed the outbound tracks to the garden. “Apparently he tripped over the pea fence and lost both his boots,” he said.
The tracks continued through a field, he said. He followed the trail until there was no snow to hold the tracks.
He testified that he pointed out the boots and tracks to emergency responders when they arrived. A family member identified the boots as Knappenberger’s, he said.
The man testified he knew Knappenberger had set the fire. “I don’t have no enemies,” he said.
Knappenberger had had a relationship with his wife, the man said, and, “molested my daughter.”
Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Bradley Barnhill was the only other witness called. He was one of two troopers that were the first to arrive at the scene.
Firefighters told police that no one had been burned in the fire, that there was a strong odor of gasoline, and that boots had been found. They were told to look for Knappenberger and that he was “just seen in Sugar Grove Borough.”
Barnhill testified that he saw a man whose appearance and clothing matched the description of Knappenberger. “He was completely covered in mud,” he said. “I didn’t see any shoes. I could smell gasoline.”
“You were looking for a guy in Sugar Grove wearing a Carhartt jacket?” Knappenberger’s attorney Warren County Public Defender John Parroccini said incredulously. “There must have been a lot of those.”
“The trick to that was finding the one without boots,” Barnhill said.
He said Knappenberger told him he had just been “jumped by three individuals” while he was riding his bike. “His story didn’t make much sense.”
Barnhill said he placed Knappenberger under arrest and read him his rights. “He did give a full confession” on video, he said.
He said Knappenberger confessed to starting the fire, including “bringing the equipment to set the fire,” with a plastic bag holding a gasoline-and-oil mixture for an accelerant. “Later, there was a gas can found on scene,” Barnhill said.
Police and firefighters initially thought the fire had spread from the front of the residence to the back on its own, Barnhill said.
A state police fire marshal looked over the scene the next day and determined there were “two separate fires,” Barnhill said. Accelerant was detected on Knappenberger’s clothes and at two locations at the residence.
Knappenberger was charged Dec. 28 with seven counts each of attempted homicide, aggravated assault, and recklessly endangering another person, five counts of endangering the welfare of children, one count of arson — danger of death or bodily injury, and one count of retaliation against victim or witness.
According to Barnhill, one of the residents is the alleged victim in a previous case against Knappenberger in which he is charged with indecent assault, and corruption of minors. He said Knappenberger said he was trying to frighten one of the residents.
Parroccini said he believed the prosecution had not met its burden to move the seven counts of attempted homicide on for further court action.
If “you set a trailer on fire in two locations” with seven people inside, “I think the intent can be inferred,” Greene said.
District Justice Todd Woodin bound all of the charges over to the Court of Common Pleas.
The standards for criminal attempt — homicide include the “negligent or reckless” risk of death, Woodin said. Under the circumstances described by the witnesses, “there’s a good chance folks inside are going to die.”