Man stands trial in Hempfield arson that caused $1 million in damage and killed 3 dogs
The day before a Hempfield family left for the Caribbean for their Christmas vacation, a Greensburg man doing chores for them unexpectedly showed up “with a plate of brownies” as a parting gift, according to testimony at a preliminary hearing on Friday.
State police allege that 9 days after Randy W. Bryner’s surprise Christmas visit, the 58-year-old returned Jan. 2 to steal silver coins and set the home on fire to cover up the burglary.
Based on two-hour testimony, Chief District Judge Helen Kistler ruled that there was sufficient evidence for Bryner to stand trial on multiple counts of aggravated arson, arson, burglary, criminal trespassing, animal cruelty and reckless endangerment.
Two Southwest Greensburg firefighters were injured fighting the blaze, which caused $1 million in damage to the 5,700-square-foot home and its contents. Three family dogs died.
Under questioning from Assistant District Attorney Leo Ciaramitaro, homeowner Maurice Auer said he hired Bryner last summer to do some outdoor work.
“He wasn’t allowed into our house except to go to the bathroom,” Auer testified. “He was not given permission to go into our house while we were gone.”
A relative who was accompanying the Auers on the trip had hired Bryner to feed and walk their dog at a vacant Jeannette residence until both families returned Jan. 2, Auer said.
The families returned to Florida Jan. 1, but their return flights to western Pennsylvania were delayed, so they rented a car to drive home, Auer said.
During the drive, Auer said around 7 p.m. Jan. 2, a pet camera at the Farmington Place residence was triggered by the dogs barking and their cellphones alerted. A little later, Auer testified that the family could see smoke filling the room via video and a separate alarm on the device indicating that “there was an emergency.”
The family called 911. A dispatcher reported that the fire brigade was already in action. Then they called two relatives, including one who had been looking after the Auers’ dogs.
As the family drove on, Auer said he eagerly downloaded the videos captured by his pet camera but didn’t know if they contained information about how the fire broke out until he watched them “a few days later.”
“I recognized Randy’s voice immediately. I called the police and handed them the tapes,” Auer said.
Firefighter William Wright testified that he spent a night at the Excela Health Westmoreland hospital in Greensburg after suffering burns to his hands, arms, back and neck. Firefighter Seth Parley was also treated and released, authorities said.
Attorney Owen Seman pleaded not guilty on Bryner’s behalf.
Seman also asked Auer if the video contained any actual images of Bryner entering the home.
“No. But you could hear the door opening,” Auer said.
Court records filed by police officers said Auer and his wife recognized Maureen Bryner’s voice addressing the dogs after he entered the home.
Based on the videos of the fire spreading rapidly, Trooper Chet Bell said he believes the fire was started intentionally.
Trooper Seth Helman they looked for the silver coin collection but couldn’t find it. The 180 to 200 coins were valued at around $7,000.
Bell added that the accelerant used could not be determined, but he believes it was arson.
Seman asked Kistler to dismiss “all charges.”
“There is no concrete indication of how the fire started. Everything we’ve heard here today is based on assumptions…based on someone’s speech recognition. … No one saw my client enter the residence,” Seman said.
However, Ciaramitaro argued that enough evidence had been presented against Bryner to stand trial.
“There is no better way to cover up a crime than to destroy evidence of your crimes,” Ciaramitaro said.
Bell said police did not find the stolen silver coins. Anyone with information is asked to call state police at 724-832-3288.
Bryner had previously been sentenced to five to 10 years in a state prison on burglary charges stemming from a 2013 incident in Northampton County, according to state records.
Kistler transferred Bryner to the county jail, where he has been held since his Jan. 7 arrest on $200,000 bail.