Home Fire News Toledo firefighters’ deaths go to trial, 3 years later

Toledo firefighters’ deaths go to trial, 3 years later

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April 23–Twice, Toledo Fire Pvt. James Dickman transmitted “Mayday” — the universal distress signal — before he and fellow firefighter Stephen Machcinski lost contact with crews fighting a fire inside a Magnolia Street building.

“Command, this is Engine 3. I’m missing two firefighters,” a frantic officer from their engine radioed.

Mr. Dickman and Mr. Machcinski had climbed into the burning North Toledo building through a second-floor window to do what firefighters do: Put down the blaze, search for occupants.

3-year wait for trial

Jan. 26, 2014: Fire at 528 Magnolia St. in North Toledo kills firefighters Stephen Machcinski and James Dickman.

Jan. 27, 2014: Building owner Ray Abou-Arab becomes a suspect.

Jan. 30, 2014: City honors Machcinski and Dickman at packed service inside the SeaGate Centre.

Jan. 31, 2014: Abou-Arab arrested.

Feb. 7, 2014: Abou-Arab indicted on 13 counts, including two of aggravated murder with death penalty specifications.

Feb. 25, 2014: Abou-Arab pleads not guilty.

July 14, 2014: City crews begin demolishing fire-damaged building.

April 28, 2015: Report on fire deaths highlights lack of full-time safety officer among eight contributing factors.

April 29, 2015: Firefighters union president publicly criticizes fire chief for eliminating full-time safety officers.

March 9, 2017: Lucas County prosecutors ask for death penalty specifications to be dismissed. Monday: Abou-Arab’s trial to begin.

They did not know that all of the occupants had gotten out safely, and they soon encountered such extreme heat and smoke that they were unable to do the same.

Nearly 14 minutes after his first distress call, Mr. Dickman would be found and carried out of the building by colleagues short on oxygen and desperate to find their brothers. Another 10 minutes would pass before Mr. Machcinski would be located and rushed to Mercy Health St. Vincent Medical Center, where both men were pronounced dead.

Killed in the line of duty. January 26, 2014.

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On Monday, the building owner accused of setting the deadly blaze is to go on trial in Lucas County Common Pleas Court.

Ray Abou-Arab, 64, of Oregon has been held in the Lucas County jail on a $5.85 million bond for more than three years awaiting this day. It’s been a long wait for Toledo firefighters too.

“The prosecution did prepare us that it could take a while,” said Fire Chief Luis Santiago, who has attended nearly every hearing in the case. “We certainly paced ourselves for the long haul.”

Because Mr. Abou-Arab was indicted on aggravated murder charges that carried death-penalty specifications, defense attorneys Pete Rost and Sam Kaplan filed an extraordinary number of motions in the case, including unsuccessful efforts to suppress surveillance video taken from the scene and recorded interviews with Mr. Abou-Arab in the days after the fire.

In March, the capital specifications were dismissed at prosecutors’ request. They cited a re-evaluation of the evidence.

It took more than a year for the court to hear and decide a dispute over an initial report that purportedly suggested the fire may have started in the kitchen of a first-floor apartment rather than in the garage — an assertion that directly contradicted the prosecution’s theory that Mr. Abou-Arab started the fire in the garage.

Also adding to the delays was the need for experts on both sides to examine scientific evidence and, prior to the dismissal of the death-penalty specifications, work by experts who would have testified in the mitigation phase before sentencing if Mr. Abou-Arab was convicted on the capital charges.

Jury selection, which is set to begin at 9 a.m. Monday before Judge Stacy Cook, is expected to last at least two days. A visit to the fire scene, where the charred building was cleared away long ago, tentatively is scheduled for Wednesday.

Ray Abou-Arab, 64, of Oregon faces possible life sentences with no opportunity for parole if he is convicted on the most serious charges -- two counts of aggravated murder for the deaths of firefighters Dickman, 31, and Machcinski, 42. Image credit: Facebook
Ray Abou-Arab, 64, of Oregon indicted on 13 counts, including two of aggravated murder with death penalty specifications for the deaths of firefighters Dickman, 31, and Machcinski, 42. Image credit: Facebook

Even without the death penalty hanging over his head, Mr. Abou-Arab, a retired Jeep worker, faces possible life sentences with no opportunity for parole if he is convicted on the most serious charges — two counts of aggravated murder for the deaths of Mr. Dickman, 31, and Mr. Machcinski, 42.

He also stands charged with two counts of murder, eight counts of aggravated arson, and one count of tampering with evidence. The eight aggravated arson counts stem from the two firefighters’ deaths as well as injuries to firefighters George Simko, Ronald Magers, and Ronald Kay and to three occupants of the building, Tracy Bishop, James Brooks, and Patricia Rollins.

Family members of Mr. Abou-Arab who have attended every court appearance since his arrest declined to comment for this story. A gag order imposed early on in the case prevented defense attorneys and prosecutors from discussing the upcoming trial with the media.

Mr. Abou-Arab, a husband and father of four sons, maintains his innocence.

He was at the Magnolia Street building — which at the time consisted of six apartments, a garage, and the Huron Market — on the day of the fire and underwent lengthy questioning by police in the days that followed.

Toledo police Detective Deborah Hahn testified at an earlier hearing that the inquiry became a homicide investigation and Mr. Abou-Arab the prime suspect after police obtained surveillance video from the corner market.

That video, which is expected to be shown to the jury, purportedly shows the defendant enter the garage, remain inside for more than a minute, then leave and enter the corner store just before an occupant of the apartment next to the garage notices the fire and calls 911.

The trial cannot end soon enough for Ali Abdou, owner of the Huron Market, which was not damaged in the fire. Eager to distance himself from the case, Mr. Abdou said last week that he was “just tired of it. I don’t really want to talk about it.”

He was leasing the property from Mr. Abou-Arab at the time of the fire and last year purchased it from him.

The trial is expected to attract large numbers of firefighters, family members of the victims, and family members and friends of the defendant.

Court Administrator Brian Patrick said that because seating inside the courtroom will be reserved, members of the public may watch the trial live at a first-floor conference room at the Lucas County Conference and Learning Center, 711 Adams St.

Chief Santiago said firefighters will be able to view the proceedings at the Lucas County Emergency Services Building — a site that is not open to the public.

A comfort dog most recently brought into court for the trial of two men charged with sexually assaulting three children in their care is to be at the site for the firefighters and family of the victims.

It will be an emotional couple of weeks.

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Mr. Machcinski and Mr. Dickman died performing their sworn duty to protect life and property, the fire department’s investigation stated.

“The dispatched incident transmission for 528 Magnolia Street concluded with the statement, ‘This is going to be a two-story apartment building, reported people are inside.’ Upon hearing that transmission, Firefighter Stephen Machcinski and Firefighter James Dickman donned their fire gear, climbed onto their engine, and responded to the scene to help persons they believed were in danger,” the report states. “The actions of these brave and selfless men epitomize the definition of a firefighter.”

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By Jennifer Feehan, The Blade, Toledo, Ohio

(c)2017 The Blade (Toledo, Ohio)

Visit The Blade (Toledo, Ohio) at www.toledoblade.com

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