D.A. drops all charges against son in fatal fire
By Matt Archbold
The Montgomery County District Attorney's Office dropped all charges yesterday against a Bucks County man who, until last month, had been facing the death penalty for allegedly setting the fire that killed his parents in their Upper Moreland home in 1996.
Paul Camiolo, 34, of Holland, spent 10 months in prison before being freed last month on $100,000 bail. Prosecutors had argued that he killed his ailing parents to collect a $400,000 estate and escape the burden of caring for them.
But Bruce L. Castor Jr., first assistant district attorney, said yesterday that new evidence indicated that the fire may not have been arson but the result of careless smoking.
Castor said he had been persuaded by Camiolo's defense attorney's argument that what prosecutors had thought to be an accelerant to burn down the house was actually residue from floor varnish.
"Because of the findings, there is insufficient evidence to proceed," Castor said. "[Camiolo] is legally innocent."
Camiolo, a customer-service representative for Shopman Inc. in Ivyland, had been informed of Castor's decision in advance and, far from being overjoyed, called the announcement "anticlimactic."
"This whole thing has just been very painful to our family," said Camiolo, adding that prison life, the specter of a long trial, and the possibility of the death penalty paled in comparison with the pain of watching his comatose mother die in a hospital from injuries sustained in the fire.
"It was the heartbreak of my life," he said. "I could live to be a hundred and nothing would be as bad as that. . . . I don't think I'll ever get over the fact that I lost them both in one night."
Camiolo skipped the news conference, choosing instead to watch Castor on television while having a salad for lunch.
"I just shrugged my shoulders," he said of the announcement.
Investigators initially labeled the Sept. 30, 1996, fire that took the lives of Edward Camiolo, 81, and his wife, Rosalie, 57, arson after finding evidence of gasoline in scorched sections of the home. The prosecutors pressed charges in January of this year, following a grand jury's recommendation.
But defense attorney Thomas Cometa of Kingston had his own experts examine the arson findings, and they soon discovered that the gasoline, found only in the home's wooden floors, was lead based, making it a product common decades ago but now rare.
Cometa said that the lead-based gas also was found in sections that remained untouched by the fire and that that led him to conclude that the gasoline was probably residue from a varnish used on the hardwood about 20 years ago.
"The gasoline was only found in the hardwood floor," the defense attorney said. "It wasn't found in the carpet on top of the floor. It wasn't found in the carpet pad. It's very difficult to explain how gasoline penetrated all those layers but wasn't left on them. We continually tried to point that out, because that shows it must have been in the floor before the fire."
Castor admitted yesterday that prosecutors had not thought to look for lead in the gasoline.
"The conclusion we drew from the lab results was that an inflammatory liquid had been used to set the fire," he said. "We were not told there was lead in that gasoline. . . . That's a pretty important fact."
In light of the new knowledge, Castor said he acted quickly, downgrading the case from a death-penalty one to one calling for life in prison, to make Camiolo eligible for release on bail.
"I didn't want to keep him locked up one minute more than necessary," he said.
Castor soon corroborated the defense's findings with his own experts and arranged to drop the charges.
Yesterday, Camiolo thanked those who stood by him through his ordeal, including his employer, Bill Burns, who had held his job for him during his imprisonment while paying him his full salary. Burns called the situation "an outrage."
Camiolo noted, however, that none of this will bring his parents back.
"It still doesn't change anything," he said. "It's over. I look for my tomorrow. You don't look back on stuff like that."
Cometa, meanwhile, would not rule out the possibility of litigation against the county. The reason for his client's imprisonment, he said, was that "somebody made a judgment . . . without knowing all the facts."
"That," he said, "was wrong."