Leonardo Fire Was Arson, Police Say

November 21, 2017
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By Jay Cook |

MIDDLETOWN – The fire at a vacant construction site in Leonardo last week was intentionally set by one young adult and two juvenile accomplices, authorities said this week.

Matthew Franco, a 20-year-old Leonardo resident, was arrested by the Middletown Township Police Department Nov. 11 on charges of aggravated arson, criminal mischief, conspiracy to commit aggravated arson, criminal trespass, and employing a juvenile in the commission of a crime, Det. Lt. Paul Bailey, a police spokesman, said on Monday.

Charges stem from the fire he allegedly set to a home under construction at 53 Hamilton Ave. last week. Franco was allegedly accompanied by two juveniles, both of whom were taken into custody and charged on Nov. 13, Bailey said.

Franco was subsequently processed and lodged in the Monmouth County Correctional Institution.

At 11:49 p.m. on Nov. 9, the Middletown Fire Department was dispatched to the Hamilton Avenue location for a “working structure fire,” Middletown Township Fire Department’s spokesman Dennis Fowler said in a statement. The house was found engulfed in flames when authorities arrived and, after a half-hour battle, the fire was under control, Fowler said.

Over 40 firefighters responded to a fire at a vacant construction site on Hamilton Avenue in Leonardo on Nov. 9. Police have arrested three young people in connection to the fire. – Courtesy Laurie Kegley MTFD PIO

Approximately 40 members from four companies of the Middletown Township Fire Department responded to the call from Brevent Park & Leonardo, Community, Port Monmouth and Belford Independent fire companies and the MTFD Air Unit and Fire Safety Unit. Both the Brevent Park & Leonardo and Community stations are located within a half mile of 53 Hamilton Ave.

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According to county tax records, the property is owned by Lamberto Builders, LLC, who purchased the 1.2-acre parcel in March. The property was subdivided into three separate lots.

The home set ablaze was the last of the three houses being built on site. None of the houses are finished and all were vacant at the time of the fire.

When police arrived at the scene on Thursday evening, they were “able to quickly develop information that the fire may have been intentionally set,” Bailey wrote in a statement.

On the morning after the fire, the shell of the home lay crumbled and charred, surrounded by yellow police caution tape and pools of water from fighting the blaze.

A car located across the street also suffered heat damage during the fire, Fowler said.

The property sits across Thompson Avenue from the Dempsey property, an approximately 2.5-acre Green Acres site owned by Middletown Township. The Dempsey Pump House is found there.

The incident took place in the same week as another fire in Middletown, where an overheated clothes dryer caused a house at 83 Bayside Parkway to catch fire.

Approximately 60 members from six companies of the Middletown Township Fire Department responded to the call including Belford Engine, Community, East Keansburg, Port Monmouth, Belford Independent and River Plaza fire companies. The MTFD Air Unit filled over 70 breathing air cylinders and the Keansburg Fire Department provided mutual aid Unit mutual aid. That fire is currently being investigated by the Middletown Township Fire Marshal’s office.

This article was first published in the Nov. 16-23, 2017 print edition of the Two River Times.

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