North Union, PA businessman acquitted of arson
By Liz Zemba
Saturday, April 12, 2008
A Fayette County, PA jury took just 25 minutes to find a North Union businessman innocent of charges he offered an employee $50,000 to torch his pool business.
After a three-day trial, Bret A. Shallenberger, 36, of 1218 Pittsburgh Road, North Union, was found not guilty of arson, criminal conspiracy and criminal solicitation to commit arson.
Jurors rejected a Dunbar man's contention that Shallenberger told him to use diesel fuel to start a Sept. 4, 2004, fire that destroyed Shallenberger's apartment and his attached business, New Generation Pools. Also destroyed was a second business located in the same building, Alpha Sports, but owned by a Pittsburgh man, Charles L. Wallace II.
One of Shallenberger's employees, Robert Lance Bunting, 36, testified Shallenberger offered him $50,000 in insurance proceeds to set the fire because the pool business was failing. On cross-examination, Bunting acknowledged the business was on track to gross $450,000 for 2004, but he said it didn't have enough cash on hand to pay some $35,000 in overdue bills.
Shallenberger's attorney, William Diffenderfer, of Pittsburgh, said the case never should have gone to trial.
"It was a no-brainer," Diffenderfer said after the verdicts were read. "It never should have been brought, or retried."
The trial was the second for Shallenberger on the same charges. A mistrial was declared in January 2007 when jurors failed to reach verdicts.
Bunting testified he was drinking the night of the fire and has no memory of setting it. He testified he assumed he did it because police found his diesel-soaked clothing in his apartment the night of the blaze.
He is awaiting trial on an arson charge but testified the district attorney's office has made a plea offer that calls for a maximum three years in prison. He denied any expectation of leniency in exchange for his testimony, but acknowledged under cross-examination that "there has been talk of immunity, but I've never received it."
Diffenderfer said he does not want to see Bunting given any special consideration.
"It is atrocious, if Mr. Bunting gets any consideration for his perjured testimony," Diffenderfer said.
Shallenberger yesterday declined comment.
Liz Zemba can be reached at email@example.com or 724-836-6646.