Wrongly convicted of arson, Stockertown, PA teen trying to move on
By Riley Yates Of The Morning Call
April 4, 2015
At the police station, accused of arson, the 14-year-old Stockertown boy just wanted to be home for Christmas.
A borough policeman was interrogating him, saying the evidence proved the teen did it. Zachary R. Handley's father and stepmother were crying and encouraging him to do as the officer said and fess up.
The eighth-grader did confess — falsely, he says — to setting the stretch of row houses ablaze, leaving four families homeless and causing more than half a million dollars in property damage. Yes, Handley agreed, he used a lighter. Yes, and a piece of newspaper.
Though Handley quickly recanted and insisted he was innocent, his admission and the testimony of an eyewitness were enough for a Northampton County judge to convict him in juvenile court.
That was 7 1/2 years ago and since then few people have had reason to take Handley at his word when he said he was no pyromaniac. But today, Handley's name has been cleared, after a stunning revelation caused his case to be reopened and his conviction thrown out.
Though Judge Anthony Beltrami, police, prosecutors and even Handley didn't know it at the time, the state's star witness against him is herself a firebug, a fact that came to light only after Karla Ann Dewey was charged in 2012 with torching her Nazareth townhouse and trying to set fire to her church.
Nor did Dewey's troubles with fires end there. At the time of her arrest, police said she was a "person of interest" in six other suspicious fires in Nazareth. And in 2003, when she was 21, her family's house in Stockertown burned down while she was the only person home.
Though Dewey hasn't been charged in those blazes and has denied involvement in the fire Handley was charged with, they raised red flags for Beltrami last month when he tossed Handley's conviction, citing serious doubts about his guilt and calling Dewey, who is 33 and in state prison, a "serial arsonist."
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," Beltrami wrote in his strongly worded decision. "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."
Handley's story is a cautionary tale, his defense attorneys and a legal expert say, on the dangers of false confessions among juveniles, who are more susceptible to high-pressure police tactics and hence more likely to admit to crimes they didn't commit.
Last week, District Attorney John Morganelli said he accepts Beltrami's ruling and will not appeal it or seek to retry Handley. Though Morganelli stopped short of saying Handley was falsely accused, he said he found Beltrami's opinion persuasive and believes it raised "significant issues" about the case.
"We have an opportunity to correct something, if it was a mistake," Morganelli said.
But correcting the record doesn't erase the past, which continues to hound Handley, now 21, as he wonders what his life would be like, but for an accusation that darkened his formative years and led to more than a year in juvenile facilities.
"I did have good values and good morals, but they got crushed," Handley said in a recent interview. "When I got out, I was like, 'Everyone thinks I'm bad. Well, I'm going to be bad.' It made me into the kid they thought I was."
Handley's trajectory changed in 2007 with a fire. Two, actually.
The first that autumn was minor, in a trash bin behind a pizza parlor in Stockertown. A neighbor reported seeing it from her home and told police she'd noticed some children riding bicycles nearby, wrote Beltrami, who presided over the case — and, in a stroke of luck years later, would remember Dewey when she coincidentally appeared before him.
It was Dewey who called in the fire, and it was she who later identified one of the children as Handley, a neighborhood boy who liked to ride bikes with his friends.
The second fire came three weeks later, Nov. 27, 2007, and it was destructive. A fast-moving blaze, it left homeless seven people who lived in the row of town houses on Bushkill Street and was immediately labeled suspicious by fire officials.
The flames started on a couch on the porch of one of the four homes. Among those that burned? Dewey's townhouse.
On the night of the fire, Dewey, then 25, was interviewed by a Morning Call reporter and the next day was photographed by the newspaper standing in front of the charred and boarded-up remains of her house.
"I'm happy that neighborhood kids think it's so funny to make people's lives miserable," Dewey was quoted as saying.
At Handley's trial, Dewey testified she had been walking to visit her parents when she saw him and two other children on bikes across the street. About 10 minutes later, she said, she noticed a "black smoke cloud" coming from her house and ran back to it, Beltrami said in last month's 33-page decision, which chronicled the evidence presented at the trial and in court records.
It was Dewey who first put Stockertown police officer Joseph Straka on Handley's trail, Beltrami noted.
Even as the fire burned, Dewey told Straka that she'd seen Handley on her porch. The officer ran down to Handley's nearby home to see if the boy knew anything.
The teen said he didn't.
Three weeks later, the phone rang in Handley's house. It was Straka asking Handley's parents to bring him to the police station for an interview.
In the roughly 90-minute interrogation that followed, everything that could go wrong did, said Steven Drizin, a law professor at Northwestern University in Chicago whose research has focused on false confessions, particularly among juveniles.
Drizin said there are three typical errors that police commit in such cases: Investigators leap to conclusions based on mistaken assumptions; use tough interrogation tactics that, knowingly or not, coerce the youth into confessing; and then lead the suspect into a seemingly plausible account of the crime, raising doubts about who really came up with the story.
"Virtually every rule or every guideline that was in the book was violated here," Drizin said of Handley's case, which he has followed independently.
Reading Beltrami's opinion, Drizin said, "I just thought, God, here we go again. Here we go again."
According to the judge's account, before speaking with Handley, Straka met privately with the boy's father and stepmother and told them that "we can do this the easy way or the hard way."
"The hard way is I can arrest him tonight. I can take him down to the juvenile probation center, and he can spend Christmas down there," Straka said, according to trial testimony by John Handley, Zachary's father.
Zachary Handley maintained at trial that he confessed only because he was scared he was going to be locked away for the holiday.
"And I love Christmas. That's my favorite time of the year because everybody is happy," Handley testified. "So I knew if I didn't admit to it, I would be in that night and I wouldn't be able to spend Christmas with my family."
Handley's attorney at the time, Matthew Potts, has called it a "classic bad-confession case," though he said the apparent evidence — namely Dewey's account and Handley's confession — made it difficult for his client.
"That is a case that has bothered me for years," Potts said in July 2013 on the day Beltrami ordered it re-examined. "I never thought Zach did it."
In throwing out the conviction, Beltrami concluded Handley's statements to Straka "may now be questioned as a false confession."
Straka did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Morganelli said he doesn't fault police for their interrogation of Handley and believes the prosecution can only be questioned in light of what is now known about Dewey.
Without that, "we'd be asked, why didn't you prosecute the guy?" Morganelli said.
Handley's current lawyer, Mark Minotti, said that in reviewing the case, there was no question in his mind that the teen was an "innocent kid" who was falsely accused. He and Drizin said the trial's outcome points to the need for all police interrogations to be recorded to ensure the best documentation possible of what transpired.
Even in poring over the dry words of the court transcripts, Minotti said he was affected by what Handley went through after he was accused and convicted. Few things, Minotti said, are worse than being labeled an arsonist. And to have no one believe you when you say otherwise?
Mr. Handley's treatment was deplorable. He's a bright, strong and thoughtful young man who already has improved his life after that horrible setback. I don't think his future is ruined if someone can give him a break by giving him a job with a decent salary and an opportunity...
"How do you cope? How do you move on?" Minotti asked.
John Handley said that when Straka told him the evidence pointed to his son, he initially believed the officer. He'd been raised to trust police, after all, he said.
After talking to Straka, John Handley remembered asking his son, "What is this? He's telling us he's got a mountain of information against you."
"Hindsight being 20/20, if I then knew what I know now, this never would have happened," John Handley said. "I guess I didn't watch enough cop shows back then."
Though Straka suggested that Handley would be home for Christmas, that isn't what occurred. For two days after his confession, Handley was allowed to remain free. But on Dec. 21, 2007, his father said, he got another phone call from the officer, asking them to come back to the station.
There, the teen was placed in handcuffs and arrested.
"I was flabbergasted. We both were," John Handley recalled. "I was crying. He was crying."
Zachary Handley said he realized that night how deeply in trouble he was when he told the guards who brought him his meal that he was innocent.
"They just laughed at me," he said.
Less than a month later, Handley was adjudicated delinquent by Beltrami in the two Stockertown fires. In his decision last month, Beltrami said that at the hearing, Dewey "played the role of the victim well."
"Back then," Handley said, "little did I know that I was staring at the lady who was the cause of my sitting in chains in the court."
Dewey did not respond to a letter The Morning Call sent her in state prison seeking comment. Her public defender, Christopher Shipman, declined to comment.
The price exacted from Handley was steep.
He was hit with a $625,000 judgment for the fire's damages and spent 47 days in a juvenile lockup in Easton before being sent to Abraxas Youth Center in Franklin County, a detention facility that treats juvenile firesetters. In the mountains near Maryland, more than 150 miles from home, it was "boot camp, pretty much" and a "quite horrible" experience, he said.
"You know all those movies where you see the drill sergeant screaming at people to wake up?" Handley said. "That's what it was. After a while, I just got used to it."
An axiom of treatment is accepting you have a problem. Handley said that for the first few months, he insisted to officials at the center that he was innocent. His father said he can remember getting letters from his son in which the teen worried he'd be held until he turned 18 because he wouldn't admit to being an arsonist.
Eventually, Handley said, he gave in and agreed that he was someone who set fires. Anything, he said, to be released from Abraxas, where he ended up spending a year.
John Handley said his son returned home a changed person. Before, he'd liked to play baseball, but suddenly, he had no interest. Always a music lover, Zachary turned even more toward it as an outlet, and seemed even more introverted than he was before, his father said.
"When he first came back, he was more than shy," John Handley said. "I don't want to say a recluse, kind of shell-shocked."
Zachary Handley said initially, the structure that boot camp instilled kept him on the straight and narrow when he returned to school partway through his freshman year. But he was soon getting into trouble — nothing that sent him back into the justice system, just stuff that caused heartache for his father and headaches for his teachers, he said.
Labeled an arsonist, he was an angry young man, ready to live up to the world's unfair expectations. He got into drugs and dropped out of Nazareth Area High School.
"I just went down the trail of using drugs all the time. I drank all the time," Handley said. "I was just trying to drown myself."
At the root of his problems was the arson record, Handley and his father believe. Occasionally, John Handley would bring up his son's conviction and ask him whether he thought something could be done about it. But Zachary told him just to forget about it.
It wasn't justice but parenthood that changed him.
Handley is now married, with a nearly 3-year-old son, Oliver.
For his child, Handley said, "I stopped doing that stupid stuff."
The young couple live at John Handley's one-bedroom walk-up apartment in Nazareth, where Zachary and his wife, Marissa, sleep on a futon in the living room. Zachary holds the first job of his life, at Dunkin' Donuts, and says he has righted himself after losing his way following his release from detention.
"If this hadn't happened, at age 21 maybe he would have been in a different place than he is now," John Handley said. "Because of what happened, this weighed him down for all these years. Basically, 21 is the new 16 for him."
Judge as hero
Today, Dewey is serving 3 1/2 to 11 years in state prison. She is doing so after pleading guilty to arson and child endangerment for a fire at her North Green Street apartment in Nazareth, which she admitted lighting on her couch while her 3-year-old son was home with her.
The March 13, 2012, blaze destroyed her rental and damaged other attached townhouses. When Dewey was sentenced by President Judge Stephen Baratta, he called the three house fires she has lived through "eerily similar" and said they suggested she has "been a danger to the community for some time."
As part of Dewey's plea agreement, prosecutors withdrew a second arson case alleging she lit a piece of poster board in October 2009 at St. John's United Church of Christ in Nazareth, a fire that quickly burned out.
Dewey is being held at Cambridge Springs State Prison in Crawford County. She will become eligible for parole next March but could be held until September 2023, according to the Department of Corrections.
According to Beltrami, after Handley's case was reopened, Dewey was brought from state prison to Easton, where she was interviewed at the Northampton County District Attorney's Office about her accusations against him.
Dewey "would not admit to involvement in either of the fires [Handley] was found guilty of starting," Beltrami wrote, noting she faced no danger in doing so considering that the statute of limitations had expired for her to be prosecuted in them.
Dewey's mother, Anita Smith, did not respond to written questions that she asked a Morning Call reporter to send to her.
Dewey's ex-husband, Richard A. Dewey III, a former volunteer firefighter in Upper Nazareth Township who lived with her during the 2007 and 2012 fires, did not return a phone call.
When Dewey took the plea bargain in her Nazareth cases, she did so initially before Beltrami, who noted it was "happenstance" and "sheer coincidence" that he randomly got the assignment, instead of one of the county's eight other judges.
In preparing for her sentencing two months later, Beltrami said he remembered Dewey. He had Handley's file pulled and realized her history with fires.
That led Beltrami to recuse himself from Dewey's cases, telling her in court that he had "strong concerns" about her testimony against Handley. At the same time, he appointed an attorney to represent Handley in a review of his conviction.
"It's a miracle," said Drizin, the law professor. "This judge is a hero in my book, because he could have easily just swept this under the rug."
Handley and his father said they are thankful to both Beltrami and Minotti for pursuing the case so many years later.
"Without that attention to detail and being so compassionate and having a conscience, this probably would have never happened," John Handley said of Beltrami. "He took a stand on it. He didn't have to."
Now cleared, Zachary Handley said his dreams for the future remain modest. He'd like to continue playing music, though he owns no guitar and can't afford to buy one. He'd like a higher-paying job, a car and an apartment of his own for his young family.
One day, he said, he'd like to move out of Pennsylvania. To live by the ocean.
||Truth in Justice