Just two minutes after the owners of the Susquehanna Depot-based County Transcript newspaper exited their office and apartment building on Exchange Street, a passerby smelled and noticed smoke and called 911.
The timeline of the September 2, 2019 events – as captured by the video camera of a neighboring business – was laid out in an affidavit filed last month in New Milford District Court by Pennsylvania State Police Fire Marshal Tpr. Jason Mills.
Charles Ficarro, 68, Susquehanna, is charged with four felony counts: arson – danger of death of bodily injury; arson – intent to collect insurance; false or fraudulent insurance claim; and criminal conspiracy to file a false or fraudulent insurance claim.
Rita Ficarro, 63, Susquehanna, has been charged with felony counts of filing a false or fraudulent insurance claim; and criminal conspiracy to file a false or fraudulent insurance claim.
Both are scheduled to appear in New Milford District Court for a preliminary hearing on Monday, March 20.
According to the affidavit, at 9:06 p.m. on the date of the fire, the video camera captured a woman walking her dog past the apartment building, crossing the street and into a parking lot before walking out of view.
At 9:07, Charles and Rita Ficcaro pull in front of the business in their vehicle. Rita entered the building first and was followed in by Charles.
At 9:11, Rita is seen exiting the building and carrying a box which she placed in the back of the vehicle. Charles is then seen exiting the building and locking its door before getting into the driver’s seat of their vehicle. Rita then closed the screen door which Charles had left open. Charles then makes a U-turn and the vehicle drives out of the camera’s view.
At 9:13 p.m., the woman walking the dog is seen walking back into the camera view and stops in front of the apartment building. She smelled and noticed smoke coming from the front of the building and called 911.
At 9:15 p.m., the video shows smoke coming out of the front of the apartment building, which becomes thick and encompasses the entire street.
According to the affidavit, there is no indication of a fire within the building when the woman with the dog first walks by, or when the Ficarros enter the building. There was a two-minute span from when the couple left the building and the time the fire was discovered.
The fire marshal wrote that the short time span was an indicator that the fire had been set just prior to the Ficarros leaving. In addition to that, the investigator said both Charles and Rita said they did not see or smell anything suspicious while in the building.
Tpr. Mills conducted an investigation of the scene on Sept. 3 and Oct. 1, 2019. The affidavit contains detailed information of the scene and the fire damage. The origin of the fire was placed in the first floor closet and Charles is accused of lighting the contents of the closet on fire.
Separate interviews with Charles and Rita were conducted on Oct. 9, 2019 at the Gibson barracks of the Pennsylvania State Police.
According to the affidavit, Charles told Tpr. Mills that he and his wife went to the Transcript to drop off their residential garbage and paperwork. An opening in the interior wall of the business led to the first floor apartment and that area was used as storage space for the Transcript. Charles said he placed the garbage near the front door of the building and unlatched the interior door to allow for the garbage hauler to access the room.
He again told investigators that he did not see or smell anything suspicious while inside the business.
Charles was then shown the footage captured by the video camera and stated, “This doesn’t look good for me.” After several questions from Tpr. Mills, Charles stopped the interview and asked for an attorney.
Tpr. Sandra VanLuvender, assited by Tpr. Mills, interviewed Rita who provided a written statement corroborating Charles’ account of dropping off garbage and opening the door to provide access. She also indicated she did not see or smell anything while inside the building.
She was told about the video footage and she asked for the audio recorder to be turned off.
According to the affidavit, Rita said she was worried about what would happen to her husband, then proceeded to tell investigators that Charles had been planning the fire for awhile with one of their employees.
The employee named in the affidavit has not been charged in the matter.
Rita said Charles wanted to set the fire because they didn’t want to go through another winter of paying the utilities for the apartment building. She also said the closet of the first floor apartment had been set up to burn but could not elaborate when asked to explain.
At the end of the interview, Rita provided a written statement saying the fire was set up by Chuck and the employee weeks prior and that she hadn’t wanted to know anything about it.
On the statement, Rita was asked if Charles had made any statements about the fire or starting the fire. She wrote: “It has to be done. Think he was just talking out loud to himself.”
The Ficarros’ insurance company issued a $35,000 check to the County Transcript Inc. on Sept. 10, 2019 to get the business back up and running. The check was deposited by Rita on Sept. 16, 2019. Charles is listed as the treasurer and Rita is the president of the County Transcript.