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Police Charge Two Penn State Rugby Players with Arson, Investigation Reveals 'Discontent' within Rugby Team

by on March 20, 2014 2:32 PM

Penn State police charged two men's rugby players with arson this week for allegedly using lighter fluid to set a team equipment shed on fire in protest of the team's coaching style.

Police charged Christopher John Petri, 22, of Brooklyn, N.Y. and Sean Robert Herbert, 21, of Ester-Surrey, United Kingdom for the Jan. 14 incident that destroyed an on-campus shed causing more than $30,000 in damage, according to court records.

At 12:41 a.m., authorities responded to a burning storage shed in a lot along Atherton Street, adjacent to the soccer fields. The shed was used to store equipment for the rugby and cross country teams. Alpha Fire Company responded and extinguished the blaze.

Penn State Police Arson Investigator Lt. Brian Bittner was called to the scene. Bittner and Penn State Detective Ryan Olson began an investigation into the suspicious fire. Authorities were able to rule out accidental causes, such as electrical issues, weather-related issues, or combustible materials.

Police also located a cell phone roughly 10 feet from the fire site, which State College police analyzed to determine the owner of the phone. Police found the owner to be another rugby player not charged with the crime.

Authorities then conducted interviews with rugby players, coaches, staff and potential witnesses, which revealed "discontent within the ranks of the men's PSU rugby team," the affidavit states. "The information relayed issues of disagreement with the head coach, his coaching style, and the overall status of the team."

Through the investigation, police determined the team held a party with alcohol at the "rugby house" in the 100 block of North Patterson Street, which is within walking distance to the fire site. Nine team members live in the house and other team members gather and socialize there.

At the party, witnesses reportedly heard players complaining about the state of the rugby team and conversations about "going to 'mess with the shed' and other comments relating to setting fire to the shed or realted contained materials," the affidavit says.

Soon after, Petri and Herbert allegedly left the house party.

While police continued to investigate, Herbert's defense attorney Matt McClenahen contacted investigators. Police then interviewed Herbert about the crime. Herbert later changed defense attorneys and is now represented by William Fleming. Around the same time, Petri's defense attorney, Steve Trialonas, contacted police and investigators subsequently interviewed Petri.

During those interviews with police the defendants allegedly admitted to starting the fire and then tossing the lighter and lighter fluid bottle in a dumpster.

Police charged both defendants with arson, conspiracy to commit arson and related offenses. Magisterial District Judge Leslie Dutchcot set the defendants' bails at $25,000 unsecured. The preliminary hearing is slated for March 26.

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Jennifer Miller is a reporter for StateCollege.com. She has worked in journalism since 2005. She's covered news at the local, state and national level with an emphasis on crime and local government.
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