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Zachary Handley

Other Arson Cases
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On November 7, 2007, 25-year-old Karla Dewey called police in Stockertown, Pennsylvania to report that boys on bicycles had set a fire inside a dumpster behind a pizza restaurant located across the street from Dewey’s townhouse.

Nearly three weeks later, on November 27, Dewey called 911 to report that her townhouse complex was on fire at 107 Bushkill Street. She told police that she saw 13-year-old Zachary Handley on the porch of her townhouse just before the fire erupted. Dewey told police that Handley was among the group of boys who set fire to the dumpster at the pizza restaurant as well.

The occupants of the townhouse managed to flee safely, but the building was engulfed in flames and completely destroyed. A fire investigator declared that the fire was started intentionally in a sofa on the porch of Dewey’s unit.

A police officer went to Handley’s home where, in the presence of his father and stepmother, Handley said he did not know anything about the fires.

On December 19, 2007, the police asked Handley’s father and stepmother to bring Handley to the police station. The officer spoke separately to the parents and said he had evidence that Zachary had set the fire and that they could “do this the easy way or the hard way.” The hard way, the officer said, would be to arrest him on the spot and take him to the juvenile probation center where Zachary would spend Christmas. Or, the officer said, “He can come in here and we can do all this through the mail, basically probably go down to court in a month or so” to be followed by some juvenile counseling.

Handley then met with his parents. They all were weeping. Handley would later testify that he didn’t want to spend Christmas in detention and that his parents said they preferred to have him home if they could handle the matter through the mail.

Handley agreed to be interviewed by the officer and after a 39-minute interrogation, Handley confessed to setting the fire with a lighter and some newspaper and signed a written statement. But he was not home for Christmas. Instead, he was arrested for arson on December 21, 2007.

At an adjudicatory hearing without a jury on January 14, 2008, Judge Anthony Beltrami found Handley delinquent for setting both fires based on Dewey’s testimony that she saw him light the fires.

After a psychological evaluation, Handley was ordered to spend six to 12 months in a residential program for youths who intentionally set fires. At the time, Dewey submitted a victim impact statement saying that it was the second devastating fire she had been involved in—her family home had burned down in 2003. Judge Beltrami also ordered Handley to pay $625,000 for the fire damage.

While in the residential program, Handley repeatedly said his confession was false. He was discharged in January 2009, after a year in the program.

More than three years later, in September 2012, Dewey was charged with arson for setting two fires. She was accused of setting fire to her home in Nazareth, Pennsylvania—a town just three miles from her former residence in Stockertown as well as setting a fire at St. John’s United Church of Christ Church in Nazareth. Dewey was caught on a video surveillance camera entering a vacant office in the church where she remained for about 30 seconds and left. Almost immediately a fire broke out and was quickly extinguished.

In the criminal complaint, police said that Dewey was as suspect in six other unsolved arsons in the Nazareth area.

In 2013, by coincidence, Dewey’s cases were assigned to the courtroom of Northhampton County Common Pleas Judge Anthony Beltrami—the same judge who presided over Handley’s juvenile arson case five years earlier.

On May 10, 2013, Dewey appeared before Beltrami and pled guilty to arson and endangering the welfare of children relating to the fire at her home. In return, the prosecution planned to dismiss the church arson case. As part of the plea agreement, Dewey admitted that she used a lighter to set fire to a couch in her home and then left, taking her three-year-old child with her, before they were harmed. Sentencing was scheduled for July 12, 2013.

In June, just prior to the sentencing date, Judge Beltrami received a presentencing report for Dewey. As he reviewed the report, he recalled that Dewey had been the witness who implicated Handley in two fires in 2007. Beltrami later said he had “a strong suspicion that it was not just a coincidence that three of Dewey’s homes had been destroyed by fire and she just happened to be present at, and was an eyewitness to, both fires that (Handley) was accused of setting.”

When Dewey appeared for sentencing, Beltrami said he was removing himself from the case. “I personally have doubts as to what happened in (2007),” Beltrami told Dewey. He said he had gone to Juvenile Court and pulled Handley’s case file and saw that Dewey had said in her victim impact statement that her house had burned down in 2003 and then in 2007. “So I started to look at all these pieces and I have strong concerns about whether or not you were involved in those other cases, whether you lied in court,” Beltrami said. He then rejected her guilty plea and the case was removed from his courtroom.

Beltrami appointed an attorney to represent Handley to investigate filing a motion to set aside Handley’s delinquency finding. Meanwhile, in August 2013, Dewey appeared before another judge and entered the same guilty plea. She was sentenced to three years to 10 years in prison on the arson conviction and a consecutive six to 12 month sentence on the child endangerment conviction.

In May 2014, a motion was filed seeking to vacate Handley’s delinquency finding.

In March 2015, Judge Beltrami granted the motion and vacated the finding. In his decision, the judge noted that in 2008 at the adjudication hearing, Handley had explained how he came to falsely confess. “I love my parents too much and my family to be in (detention) for Christmas,” the 13-year-old testified. “And I love Christmas. That’s my favorite time of the year because everybody is happy.”

Beltrami also noted that after giving the confession, Handley “steadfastly maintained that it was false” prior to and during the adjudicatory hearing, during several evaluations after the hearing and throughout the residential fire-setting treatment program.

The judge also declared, “Accordingly, it has become abundantly clear to this Court that fire is an instrument of power and a weapon of choice to which Karla Dewey was no stranger. It has also become abundantly clear that it appears to be more than a mere coincidence that the common denominator in all of these fires is Karla Dewey.” The judge also vacated the restitution order.

On May 8, 2015, Judge Beltrami signed an order dismissing the case after Northhampton District Attorney John M. Morganelli submitted a letter withdrawing the juvenile complaint against Handley. In April 2017, a federal civil rights lawsuit was filed on behalf of Handley seeking damages. The city of Stockertown settled the lawsuit in October 2017 for $175,000.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 5/15/2015
Last Updated: 10/24/2017
State:Pennsylvania
County:Northampton
Most Serious Crime:Arson
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2007
Convicted:2008
Exonerated:2015
Sentence:6 to 12 months
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:13
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No