Accused Arsonist Denied Pre-Trial Program
If completed successfully, it would have led to the dismissal of the second-degree charge.
The Zion Road man who was indicted for allegedly setting fire to a historic barn on Amwell Road in March has been denied entry into the state’s pre-trial intervention program which, if completed successfully, would have led to the dismissal of the second-degree aggravated arson charge.
Curtis Westover, 69, is now scheduled to appear in Superior Court before Superior Court Judge Julie Marino for a status conference at 9 a.m. Sept. 28.
Westover’s application for PTI was rejected Aug. 23 by Elizabeth Lipari, the director of Somerset County's PTI program. According to court papers, Westover’s application was rejected based on the nature of the charge.
The Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office agreed with Lipari’s decision. Assistant Prosecutor Frank Kolozieski wrote in a letter that despite Westover’s age and his lack of a previous record, the case was “outrageous” and “worthy” of a traditional prosecution.
Westover, now free on $50,000 bail, has been indicted on a charge of setting fire to an unoccupied barn on Amwell Road in Neshanic on March 18 at about 7:30 a.m., according to the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office.
John Lazorchak, chief of the Neshanic Fire Co., owned the building and the adjacent JML Landscaping. Lazorchak had been trying to demolish the structure and build a 6,700-square-foot office building but was involved in a legal fight with the zoning board of adjustment over the plan.
In a probable cause affidavit, Det. Jeffrey VanderGoot of the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office said that the fire was reported by a witness who also reported seeing a silver-colored car fleeing the scene at a high rate of speed.
On March 24, the affidavit states, Westover came to township police headquarters to speak to detectives about the fire. After being given his Miranda warnings against self-incrimination, Westover admitted he had set the fire with matches by lighting grass and brush at the rear of the bar, the affidavit said.
He also told authorities that he then left the scene in a silver Mercedes, which matched the witness’s description, the affidavit said.
Westover also told police that he intended to destroy the barn, the affidavit said.
As a condition of his bail, Westover is to have no contact with Lazorchak.
Chanel Hudson, Westover’s public defender, told the court in a July status conference that she wants to subpoena Westover’s medical records and may possibly have him evaluated by a psychiatrist. Hudson said she will also ask for a hearing to determine if Westover’s Miranda rights had been violated.
The Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office has offered Westover a five-year prison term in exchange for a guilty plea. Under state law, a conviction of a second-degree crime carries a presumption of a 5 to 10-year prison sentence.
Westover was in front of the Planning Board on Thursday night regarding a separate matter, when he received approval from the township Planning Board to subdivide his eight-acre property at 229 Zion Road.
According to Robert Heibell, Westover’s engineer, Westover wanted to divided the property into two-acre and six-acre lots. Both lots are undersized in the MZ zone, as is the present eight-acre lot.
The house Westover shares with his wife would be on the two-acre lot, Heibell said, while the remaining six acres would become a flag lot that would be restricted to an existing landscaping business with no increase in impervious surface.
Westover said his son has a nursery on the property and sells trees, including Christmas trees during season.
Board member Neil Julian, who also sits on the township Environmental Commission, said he and two other commission members had walked Westover’s property when he previously filed a subdivision application with the Zoning Board of Adjustment. Julian said they saw an area of possible contamination in the area of a building that was used for small-engine repair on the property.
“If the property is to be sold, those issues will have to be addressed,” Julian said.
Westover agreed to a have an independent evaluation of whatever contamination may be on the site as a condition of the subdivision approval. Westover had filed suit against the Hillsborough Zoning Board in November.
The suit, dismissed in February, charged the board with acting arbitrarily in ruling that it had no jurisdiction on Westover's application for a subdivision on his property.