A Maxatawny Township man convicted of setting his home on fire was rightfully convicted in Berks County Court and must spend up to a decade in a Pennsylvania prison, a state appeals court panel has decided.
Superior Court on Monday upheld John M. Sekerak III's conviction on arson, reckless endangerment and insurance fraud charges, as well as his 5- to 10-year prison sentence.
Those charges are the result of an Aug. 8, 2018, blaze at Sekerak's home in the 15600 block of Kutztown Road in which two firefighters were injured. A jury convicted him in January 2020.
Sekerak, 49, appealed, but Berks Judge Patrick T. Barrett ruled against overturning the convictions. Sekerak then appealed to Superior Court, claiming there was insufficient evidence to convict him and that the sentence was excessive.
The appeals court, in a memorandum written by Judge Victor P. Stabile, said it agreed with Barrett's conclusion that testimony by Sekerak's wife, Nancy Sekerak, helped prove Sekerak's guilt, as did testimony by Albert Lattanzi Jr., an expert in trace evidence among fire debris, and Trooper Janssen Herb, state police fire marshal.
Herb and Lattanzi determined that accelerants were used throughout the home consistent with arson, and Herb found the fire had been set intentionally in two locations.
Nancy Sekerak testified that before the fire her husband was angry and frustrated about problems involving their neighbor. He told her that he didn't want to live anymore before dousing himself in gasoline and telling her to take their cats and leave, she said. She said she saw him walking into the house with two propane tanks before she left to call police.
Sekerak testified that he didn't start the fire, but that his wife hit a cigarette out of his mouth, then the house went up in flames.
The appeals court also ruled Sekerak's sentences for each conviction were fair.
According to court documents:
State police at Reading were dispatched for a report of a house on fire and a man who had poured gasoline on himself.
The fire caused extensive damage to the house. Two firefighters were taken to Lehigh Valley Hospital near Allentown for treatment, including Donald Battista, a Kutztown firefighter who suffered burns.
Battista told investigators that he was one of the first on scene and entered the house before fire suddenly erupted on his left, burning his shoulder.
Sekerak escaped before firefighters or police arrived.
A manhunt was started, and a state police helicopter was dispatched to assist. Sekerak was taken into custody later in the day in West Penn Township, Schuylkill County. Officers said Sekerak's clothing smelled of gasoline.
When taken into custody, Sekerak told police that he had been in the basement of the home when he saw a large fireball, forcing him to throw a propane grill and a gas container out his back door before diving out a window and riding away on a bicycle.
Sekerak was transported to Reading Hospital and later told investigators that he couldn't recall what occurred in the home.