Mount Carmel fire

Eric Scicchitano/The Daily Item

Two homes along North Walnut Street in Mount Carmel were heavily damaged by fire Tuesday morning, Aug. 13, 2019.

MOUNT CARMEL — A district judge denied a defense attorney’s request to dismiss an attempted murder charge filed against one of two women accused of torching a borough home last week.

At the conclusion of a preliminary hearing Wednesday, District Judge William Cole ordered all 13 charges filed against Michelle Rhoads, 23, of Mount Carmel, including attempted murder and nine arson charges, held for Northumberland County Court.

Rhoads’ co-defendant, Misty Dunbar, 23, of Elizabethville, waived her hearing, a formality that automatically sends her own 13-count criminal case — the same charges filed against Rhoads — to county court.

Mount Carmel Police arrested Rhoads and Dunbar the day after a fire destroyed 434 N. Walnut St. and badly damaged 432 N. Walnut St. on Aug. 13. They’re accused of intentionally setting the blaze out of anger toward an occupant of 434 N. Walnut St., Kelly Witmer, who police said the pair initially sought to assault before lighting the fire, arrest papers state.

Attorney Richard Feudale represented Rhoads and argued that the county district attorney’s office failed to prove evidence existed showing the allegations against his client were done with intent that merited the attempted murder charge.

Feudale also argued surveillance video entered into evidence didn’t definitively identify Rhoads as having been at the fire.

Dunbar told police Rhoads acted as a lookout and that Dunbar lit the fire, according to a criminal complaint.

“A lookout does not have a specific intent to kill,” Feudale said during closing arguments, couching his statement later by casting doubt about Rhoads alleged involvement.

District Attorney Tony Matulewicz entered into evidence witness statements implicating Rhoads and Dunbar along with two videos. Police say one video spanning about 20 minutes before the blaze shows Rhoads and Dunbar at 434 N. Walnut St. along with a flash of light said to be the spreading of flames at the target home, arrest papers state.

Matulewicz said there were multiple points of ignition including at the home’s front and side exits. He said the co-defendants acted in unison.

“I don’t think it’s a huge leap that if the fire spread at the front, (Witmer) would have been entrapped and likely would have died,” Matulewicz said.

Chief Chris Buhay testified that after Dunbar was arraigned, she spoke out loud as she walked into a holding area at Cole’s courtroom that “she should have just killed (Witmer).”

The fire was reported by Witmer at 6:01 a.m. after she ran from the home

Witmer dates Jason Dillow, son of the home’s owner. She moved into his home a few weeks after leaving a rental property she shared with Dunbar.

Witmer testified she and Dunbar were at odds over the change of residency, which left Dunbar scrambling to find a place to stay. Witmer said she paid the rent and offered Dunbar a place in part to help the defendant’s daughter.

Witmer told the court she nearly was entrapped inside the home by the arson fire since the only two first-floor exits were ablaze.

“I opened the (front) door and the flames hit my face,” Witmer said.

Also testifying at Rhoads’ preliminary hearing were Patrolman Justin Stelma and John Dillow, owner of 434 N. Walnut St.

Cole sided with the prosecution at the hearing’s end.

“There was both direct and circumstantial evidence presented,” Cole said.

Dunbar’s and Rhoads’ next court appearance is scheduled for October at the county courthouse in Sunbury.

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