Photos and beer can trail lead to arson arrest

State Police fire investigators have concluded that the fire that totaled all four of the Albany Fire Department's vehicles was deliberately set.   Pictured is smoke blackened engine number one, where the fire started.  Photo by Tena Starr

State Police fire investigators have concluded that the fire that totaled all four of the Albany Fire Department’s vehicles was deliberately set. Pictured is smoke blackened engine number one, where the fire started. Photo by Tena Starr

by Tena Starr

ALBANY  — An Albany firefighter, who allegedly told police he has a problem with fire and needs help, has been accused of trying to burn down his own department.

Elmer Joerg, 45, of Holland pled innocent last week in the Criminal Division of Orleans Superior Court to a count of second degree arson and another of reckless endangerment.  He was held on $250,000 bail.

The fire, which occurred at about 1 a.m. on August 11, ruined all of the Albany department’s vehicles and much of their equipment.  The department is back in business, though, due to the generosity of other communities that have donated everything from helmets to trucks.

Police affidavits say that a trail of Natural Light beer cans, as well as game cameras set up in the fire station, led investigators to Mr. Joerg.

The game cameras were set up because of an earlier gasoline theft.  Although they were damaged in the fire, the photos were eventually recovered and included several images of an individual inside the firehouse at the time of the fire.

When Albany Fire Chief Donald Peters looked at the pictures he told investigators he believed the man might, in fact, be one of his firefighters.  He identified the man as Elmer “Jim” Joerg, Lieutenant James Cruise of the State Police Fire Investigation Unit says in his affidavit.  Mr. Peters also had gone by the Joerg residence and noticed an ATV in the yard that matched the description of an ATV a neighbor saw leaving the scene of the fire, police say.

Last Tuesday Chief Peters scheduled a mandatory meeting for all fire department members, in part to regroup and familiarize themselves with their new equipment.  Also, a State Police fire investigator individually questioned firefighters, both past and present, in the hope of shedding some light on the fire.

Mr. Joerg was the only Albany Fire Department member who did not attend the meeting.  Investigators were told that Mr. Joerg had been taken to the hospital by ambulance the day before with an unknown illness and was in a coma.

Sergeant Jeremy Hill and Lieutenant Cruise went to Mr. Joerg’s home where Jacqueline Joerg said her husband was still in the hospital.  She indicated that she did not know the nature of his illness, but it could have been an overdose of some sort or a suicide attempt, she told police.

Mrs. Joerg told police her husband had been very upset that “someone could have started a fire at the station and destroyed all the equipment.”

Investigators found a number of Natural Light beer cans in a barrel on the Joergs’ porch and more on the ground in front of his car.  Later they saw a Natural Light can on the side of the road on the Hitchcock Hill Road in Albany and took it as evidence, noting the “born on” date was the same as that on the cans at Mr. Joerg’s house.

On another trip between the Joerg house and the fire station they noticed a second Natural Light can, again with the same “born on” date as those at the Joergs’ home.

On August 14, the day after the fire department meeting, police investigators were able to interview Mr. Joerg at North Country Hospital.  He initially denied being involved in setting any fire at the Albany fire station.

But when police explained to him that they had pictures, his beer cans, and that his ATV and jackets matched those witnesses saw, “He bowed his head and was nodding yes and finally agreed that it was him,” Lieutenant Cruise’s affidavit says.

Mr. Joerg allegedly told police he’d gone to the station on his ATV and used his firefighter’s access code to get into the back door of the station.  He’d forgotten to bring a lighter with him, so he used the kitchen stove to set some paper on fire, lit cardboard with that, and ultimately lit the cab of fire engine number one, he allegedly told police.

Mr. Joerg said he then fled the scene and later returned as an Albany firefighter.

Monica Grondin told State Police Fire Investigator Detective Sergeant David Sutton she saw someone inside the firehouse about 1:15 that morning.  After leaving the building, he started his ATV and drove along the shoulder of Main Street past her home with the headlights off, she said.

In the course of the first interview with investigators, Mr. Joerg allegedly told them “he set the fire because he had a problem with fire and thinks about setting fires often, and has urges to set fires that he is usually able to control.

“He also advised that he is a danger because he set this fire and admitted that he would not have minded dying in this fire,” Lieutenant Cruise says in his affidavit.

Police interviewed Mr. Joerg a second time, and he went into more detail, saying he’d also tried to set fire to the rescue vehicle.

He also allegedly said that he’d panicked and pulled down the smoke alarm in the building.

Mr. Joerg said he’d set about seven fires over the past ten years but no one had been injured in them, police said.

His criminal record includes charges in Vermont, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.

He has been charged with giving false information to a police officer and possession of marijuana in Vermont.

In the late 1980s, in New Jersey, he was convicted of sexual assault, arson and larceny.  A charge of making a terrorist threat was reduced to disorderly conduct.

In Rhode Island in the 1990s Mr. Joerg pled no contest to assault with a deadly weapon and breaking and entering.

If released from jail, Mr. Joerg is ordered by the court to have no contact with any member of the Albany Fire Department and to stay at last 300 feet away from the fire station.

A competency and sanity evaluation has been ordered.

contact Tena Starr at tenas@bartonchronicle.com

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