A Philadelphia man has been accused of deliberately setting fire to a three-story building he owned, causing the building to collapse on top of the firefighters, killing one of them, authorities said Tuesday.
The man, Al-Ashraf Basem Khalil, 28, had fled to Jordan but returned to the United States after a warrant was issued in Pennsylvania. according to to the US Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
Mr. Khalil was arrested Friday at Kennedy International Airport in New York City and charged with two charges of arson and one count of making false statements to authorities after they told him that surveillance camera footage showed him and another man part of the building where the fire started on June 18, the US Attorney’s Office said.
He faces life or the death penalty if convicted. Authorities have not stated a motive for the arson or released the name of the second man.
“Arson is without a doubt a violent crime—one that puts our brave first responders and the innocent public in grave danger, as was so tragically demonstrated in this case,” said Nelson ST Thayer Jr., the US’s first assistant attorney at law in the United States. district, said to a news conference on Tuesday.
R. Emmett Madden, Mr Khalil’s attorney, did not immediately respond to a call for comment Tuesday. He told The Philadelphia Inquirer that his client “played no part in starting the fire on his property.” Mr Khalil did not immediately respond to a phone call asking for comment on Tuesday.
Mr. Khalil’s building housed Star Pizza Fish and Chicken, in the Fairhill section of North Philadelphia, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood about three miles north of Center City, dominated by two- and three-story townhomes.
The fire started just before 2 a.m. Firefighters extinguished it and evacuated eight people, according to a statement from Mayor Jim Kenney’s office.
But at about 3:30 a.m., when firefighters searched for hidden fires in the building, it collapsed and the debris crashed into them. Four firefighters and a city official were rescued from the rubble, some with serious injuries, authorities said. The firefighter who died was later identified as Lieutenant Sean Williamson, 51, a 27-year veteran assigned to Ladder 18 in the Hunting Park section of the city.
Mr Thayer said that when investigators viewed surveillance footage from that early morning, they saw two men walking behind a dumpster and entering the basement doors of the property. They left about 20 minutes later. Shortly afterwards, the footage shows smoke coming out of the building, Mr. thayer.
“Based on video surveillance, no other people were seen entering or leaving the building before smoke was present,” an affidavit in support of the charges said.
The footage shows one of the men wearing black pants with white stripes on the side that fall below the knee, the affidavit said. Footage captured later that morning as the fire destroyed the building shows Mr Khalil wearing the same pants, the affidavit said.
Mr Khalil received a call from one of his tenants on the day of the fire, telling him that the pizzeria downstairs was on fire, the affidavit said.
Mr Khalil asked if La Casa Pizza, a restaurant he owns that is not in the building, was on fire causing confusion for the tenant, who is referred to as MM in the affidavit, as Mr Khalil knew that he lived above Star. Pizza fish and chicken.
“MM thought it was strange that Khalil asked if MM called him about La Casa,” the affidavit said.
On June 21, investigators met with Mr Khalil and asked if he would agree to a search of his phone, according to the affidavit. He declined, telling them he had no travel plans and booked a one-way flight to Amman, Jordan that day.
Mr Thayer said Mr Khalil had “provided investigators with false information about where he was at the time of learning of the fire.” The affidavit states that Mr Khalil told investigators that he had been sitting on the couch at his home when he received a call about the fire.
The next day, a judge charged Mr Khalil. On Friday, Mr Khalil was arrested at Kennedy International Airport on his return from Jordan.
Eric Gartner, the U.S. Marshal for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, said at a news conference Tuesday that Mr. Khalil had been placed in handcuffs with Lieutenant Williamson’s initials and license plate number, underscoring the high emotions in the case.
The final speaker at the press conference was Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam K. Thiel, who had told reporters a week earlier, “I’m not done crying.”
Before speaking on Tuesday, he posted a wallet-sized photo of Lieutenant Williamson on the lectern and turned it toward the cameras.
Then he leaned into the microphone and spoke, “Arson killed Lieutenant Williamson.”
Sheelagh McNeill research contributed.