A Coatesville firefighter lauded as Officer of the Year in 2004, and quoted in recent news accounts about the arson spree plaguing the city, was charged today with setting two fires.
Robert F. Tracey Jr., who was promoted to a paid position in the West End Fire Company last month, was shackled at the fire company on his 37th birthday.
Tracey, of Charles Street in Coatesville, is accused of setting the fires Friday night in the city's West End - blocks from where he lives with his wife and five children.
Those fires, which caused no injuries or damage to homes, brought the number of 2009 arsons in Coatesville to 22.
At a news conference tonight, Chester County District Attorney Joseph W. Carroll said Tracey was being held at Chester County Prison, with bail set at $2 million.
"I would love to say that this is the end," said Carroll, "but it is not."
Tracey is the seventh arson defendant to be taken into custody. One of the other defendants is a volunteer firefighter, and a third wanted to be a firefighter but was rejected.
Carroll said members of law-enforcement were disturbed by Tracey's affiliation with the fire department, but he said the distress was even greater for firefighters.
"They do a tremendous service to the community at all times," Carroll said.
Carroll said Tracey did not respond to the fires he is accused of setting but did not know whether Tracey was at other arson scenes, including Tracey's mother's home.
Since February 2008, federal investigators have recorded 70 arsons in the Coatesville area, including a blaze that killed an 83-year-old Nazi-work-camp survivor in December and a January fire that gutted 15 rowhouses in the 300 block of Fleetwood Street.
The former captain of the volunteers at Coatesville's West End Fire Company, Tracey was hired by the city last month as a part-time firefighter.
"We put a lot of confidence in him moving up the ranks," City Council member Kareem Johnson said. "This is a very big disappointment."
Assistant District Attorney Thomas Ost-Prisco credited witnesses with giving police descriptions of the suspect in Friday's fires, which led to Tracey's arrest.
"Both of these houses were occupied; one house had eight residents," Ost-Prisco said.
Because of residents' vigilance, the fires were extinguished quickly, he said.
"It could have been much worse," he added.
Some of Tracey's neighbors shook their heads in disbelief at the news. Others said they had been suspicious of him for some time.
"He's supposed to be the one protecting us," said Woody Jones, 47.
Jones said people in the normally peaceful neighborhood had been terrified since the beginning of the year.
Anna Jones, 60, said she was not ready to rest easier.
"I felt better after they caught the last two," she said, referring to arson suspects Roger L. Barlow and Mark Gilliam, who were arrested Feb. 19. "And then it started happening all over again."
Neighbors said Tracey was the grandson of Edward Tracey, who received an award in October 2004 for 67 years of membership in the Coatesville Fire Bureau.
Fire Company vice president George Leusky said he thought Tracey "was a decent guy but you never know.
". . . He seemed OK to me but I was not into the firefighting. I helped out in the club room, in the social part of things."
Before Friday, the latest arson occurred March 14 in the 200 block of Valley Road.
The fires Tracey is accused of setting occurred a little before midnight in the 100 block of Hope Avenue and the 600 block of Madison Street. A lawn chair and a trash can were set ablaze.
One of the victims, Felicia Taylor, said police contacted her yesterday afternoon about the arrest. She expressed guarded optimism.
"I just hope it's over," she said.
Carroll said the Chester County Arson Task Force will continue operating until all the crimes have been solved.
"None of us will sleep very well until everyone in Coatesville can do the same," he said.