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Police Say Man Admitted to Setting Sheriff's Van on Fire

by on July 18, 2019 3:41 PM

A Bellefonte man who was charged in 2018 with throwing incendiary devices on the roofs of the Centre County Courthouse and Sheriff's Office allegedly admitted while in jail that he set a sheriff's department van on fire in 2017.

Dennis Lee Hassinger, 49, was charged on Wednesday with third-degree felony counts of reckless burning or exploding and criminal mischief. He was charged after his former cellmate in the Centre County Correctional Facility told police Hassinger explained to him that he was responsible for both the 2017 and 2018 incidents and showed him photographic evidence.

At about 1:30 a.m. on Nov. 27, 2017, firefighters and Bellefonte police responded to the sheriff's office, 213 E. High St., where a sheriff's department van was engulfed in flames.

According to a criminal complaint, police reviewed surveillance camera footage and saw an individual approach the van three times between 1-1:20 a.m. On the third occasion, the person hoisted what appeared to be a jug over the top of the van, as if pouring liquid from it. The individual moved to the front of the van and appeared to light it on fire, then threw a burning object into the middle of the parking lot before running off, police said.

The van, a 2017 Ford Transit, was a total loss and was valued at approximately $47,000. The fire also caused $1,700 in damage to a nearby 2012 Ford Explorer belonging to the sheriff's department. A fire marshal from the Pennsylvania State Police investigated and concluded the cause of the fire was incendiary, resulting from an accelerant poured on the exterior of the van and ignited.

Nearly a year later, on Nov. 1, 2018, Bellefonte police were dispatched to the courthouse for a hole in the roof that appeared to be caused by a fire. Maintenance personnel found similar damage on the roof of the nearby sheriff's office. Pieces of newspaper that had an odor of liquid accelerant were found on the courthouse roof and pieces of a plastic bottle, believed to be the source of the fire, were found in the burn area on the sheriff's office roof. 

Surveillance camera footage from both buildings showed the fire damage was caused by someone throwing Molotov cocktails on the roofs early on the morning of Oct. 30. Law enforcement recognized Hassinger as the person who was seen in the video lighting objects on fire and throwing them on the roofs of the sheriff's office and courthouse, according to a complaint. He was charged with multiple felonies in that case, which is still awaiting trial.

On June 27, Hassinger's former cellmate told police that he didn't know anything about either incident before Hassinger started talking about them. Hassinger allegedly told him both about how he approached the buildings to throw the incendiary devices in 2018 and how he set the van on fire in 2017. The inmate told police Hassinger said "he wishes he was three feet out of camera view when he threw the items on the roof," and that he would have thrown them through a window but figured that would set off an alarm.

The inmate said Hassinger also showed him photos and didn't specifically say it was him in the pictures but "made it well known it was definitely him," according to the complaint.

Hassinger allegedly said he set the fires "because the county got him several times and he was getting revenge."

Police said that Hassinger's ex-girlfriend also said in an interview that he "blames the county for putting a felony on his record that ruined his life." He has been arrested several times over the past 15 years and has had convictions for criminal trespass, simple assault and disorderly conduct, according to court records.

Hassinger was arraigned Wednesday by District Judge Kelley Gillette-Walker, who set straight monetary bail at $150,000. A preliminary hearing on the new charges is scheduled for July 24.

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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