By Jaime North
The Danville News
DANVILLE — If alleged serial arsonist Chester Cyphers was responsible for setting fire to three local barns in 1973, as many suspect he did, it was near impossible for his future fire company to have known when he applied for membership 20 years later.
Washingtonville Fire Chief Gary Roberts said the fire company, which Cyphers was an active member since 1993, has an investigating committee in charge of checking references of interested volunteers but no such policy was in place back then. Even now, the background check isn't real in-depth, according to Roberts, who added the fire company is limited in how thorough it can reference someone.
"We have a couple of people (volunteers) who check people out based on references," said Roberts, who has been fire chief for the past 26 years. "Criminal records can be checked, but if they're sealed (juvenile records), we won't know. It was a real shock to us. We don't know why he did it (the recent arson fires), but I guess nobody will."
Robert said Cyphers' membership has been suspended pending the outcome of his case, which alleges he purposely set 11 fires in three counties since November, including a blaze that left a Turbotville firefighter paralyzed.
Cyphers, 52, of Whitehall, reportedly admitted to setting up to 25 fires but wasn't sure of the details due to the time span and the numbers of the fires, according to charges filed through District Judge Marvin Shrawder's office.
Some locals however, including Kendall Peterman, 59, of Lairdsville, believe Cyphers was responsible for three barn fires set in January of 1973, two in Columbia County and another in Lycoming County. The last fire, Jan. 26, 1973, destroyed Peterman's family barn.
"He dated my sister once, and he came back (to the farm) to see if she would go out with him again," said Peterman, who was 26 at the time. "She didn't, and that night our barn caught fire. He (Cyphers) said something to my dad (during the fire) that he was surprised to hear the fire (station) alarm go off when he got to Millville. He seemed to know the fire was going to be there (our barn)."
Messages seeking comment from Cyphers' attorney, George Lepley, were not returned.
Peterman said Cypher's parents, whose barn in Jerseytown burnt to the ground on Jan. 19, 1973, visited his parents the night of the fire.
"They came into the house and sat there with my parents as if they were long-time friends telling us what we need to do regarding insurance and everything," Peterman said. "Dad just put two-and-two together. He talked to the fire marshal about it."
According to Peterman, who said the barn fire occurred on a Friday, the fire marshal pulled the 17-year-old Cyphers out of school the following Monday to question him.
"My dad went to the hearing and was upset at the judge about not giving (Cyphers) enough punishment," said Peterman, who claims Cyphers was given six months of probation. "My dad was upset about it up until his death (in 1991). My mom is still upset to this day, especially after reading all the (recent) newspaper stories."
Due to Cyphers' alleged actions occurring when he was a juvenile, those court records are sealed and aren't accessible.
Montour County District Attorney Robert Buehner Jr. said the current investigation has focused on Cyphers' alleged actions as an adult, from 1974 to April of 2008. Buehner said his office started receiving phone calls, including allegations back to 1973, minutes after Cyphers' arrest became public last month.
"I was in college at the time, so I have no personal knowledge of (those fires)," Buehner said. "As far as I know, there are no records in Montour County that could confirm those (juvenile) charges."
Buehner said the investigation is moving forward and won't stop with the arrest. His office is asking the public to continue offering tips and information of any suspicious fires since 1974, especially fires where Cyphers was witnessed at the scene as a firefighter or spectator.
"We want to give those individuals who had fires on their properties some peace of mind that the person who has been arrested may have been the person responsible, and he is behind bars," Buehner said. "The other thing we are looking at is to make sure there isn't some copy cat out there doing similar things."
Cyphers remains in Montour County Jail on $400,000 straight bail and will next be arraigned in county court.
In the meantime, Roberts said his small fire company of roughly 20 active volunteers has been handling the situation as best they can.
Whether or not Cyphers is responsible for the three barns fires 33 years go won't affect the importance of solving the current case of arson fires, according to Roberts.
"It was all rumors that he was accused," said Roberts, who was 14 at the time. "Since the (juvenile) records were sealed, we never knew for sure."
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