Retrial in deadly East Hills arson dredges up painful memories
Tom Kolenda said his family struggled for two decades to move forward since the tragedy that became known as the “Bricelyn Street Fire.”
His nephew was one of three Pittsburgh firefighters who died in the East Hills house, set ablaze by the homeowner’s son so they could collect the insurance money, a jury decided.
Soon Kolenda’s family will be forced to relive what happened. A judge granted Gregory Brown another trial, likely early next year, based on a legal technicality.
“It’s horrible,” Kolenda said. “We don’t think he deserves it. We feel the kid was guilty when he was proven guilty. And now he’s been given a new trial for whatever crazy reason.”
Marc Kolenda, 27, Patricia Conroy, 43, and Capt. Thomas Brooks, 42, died in the fire on Feb. 14, 1995, when they were trapped inside the home. Brown, now 38, is serving a life prison sentence for three counts of second-degree murder.
The evidence did not support the prosecutors’ arguments, said Al Lindsay, his lawyer during the first trial. The insurance payout covered only a fraction of the value of the home and what was inside, he said, calling Brown’s conviction a “horrible injustice.”
In February 2014, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Joseph K. Williams granted Brown a new trial because jurors were not told that a prosecutor and a federal agent rewarded two key witnesses with thousands of dollars in exchange for their testimony.
According to court documents, one of the witnesses told investigators he heard Brown confess to setting the fire.
Brown’s defense lawyers have argued the fire was an accident, not arson.
“One tragedy should not be allowed to beget another tragedy, and that’s precisely what happened here,” said defense attorney Jason Hazlewood, referring to Brown’s lengthy prison sentence.
“It reopens that old wound. I feel sorry for the families,” said retired deputy fire Chief John Gourley, who went to the fire scene after the fatalities.
The three firefighters responded to the fire shortly after midnight that Valentine’s Day. Conroy and Kolenda worked with Engine 8, but were assigned that night to Engine 17, where Brooks was captain. Inside the burning home, they became separated from other crew members and an interior stairwell collapsed.
They ran out of air as smoke filled the family room, where their bodies were found. Investigators determined that plastic coverings over the windows made it difficult for them to find an escape route and smoke obscured their vision.
After the tragedy, the fire department changed training, equipment and response protocols.
But time hasn’t erased some of the anger and bitterness for firefighters who lost colleagues.
Brooks was with the department for 13 years. Conroy, the first female Pittsburgh firefighter killed on duty, was an eight-year veteran. Kolenda had worked there just over a year. He was engaged to be married, his uncle said.
“That day was the most somber day in the world for firefighters,” said John Santoriello, a retired firefighter and president of the Pittsburgh Veteran Firefighters Association. “That day nobody spoke; nobody said a word.”
He wasn’t working the night of the fire, he said, but he heard what happened when he went to work the next day. After his shift, he went home and cried, he said.
Santoriello accompanied Conroy when she responded to her first fire as a new recruit. He was in her honor guard at her funeral.
“It’s going to open a lot of wounds that have been closed for 20 years,” Santoriello said about Brown’s upcoming trial.
But he trusts the court system will deliver justice.
“I think it’s great,” said Harry Knipp, a former fire captain and the arson investigator on that case. “Just so they can reconvict him. So they have no chance to complain. We lost three people.”
Evidence presented at Brown’s trial revealed that his mother, Darlene Buckner, took out a $20,000 renter’s insurance policy three months before the fire. A jury convicted Brown of murder, arson and insurance fraud. He is being held in the Allegheny County Jail, pending trial.
Buckner was cleared of homicide and arson but convicted of insurance fraud. She was sentenced to three years of probation. Buckner told police that she and her son were at a Giant Eagle at the time of the fire. Witnesses testified during Brown’s trial that they saw him at the house.
Brown’s trial date is not set. Prosecutors recently requested that the judge recuse himself from the retrial, saying he was biased against Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents. The judge refused to step aside, arguing prosecutors didn’t sufficiently back up the claims.
Kolenda, who went to high school with Brooks, said he doesn’t understand why another trial is necessary. Just as he doesn’t understand why Brown’s mother isn’t in prison with him.
“I just think it’s horrible, that’s all,” Kolenda said.
Elizabeth Behrman is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at email@example.com or 412-320-7886.