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Plea ends case over 1995 blaze that killed 3 Pittsburgh firefighters

Patrick Doyle
90.5 WESA
Three Pittsburgh firefighters suffocated when their air tanks ran out as they tried to escape from the rapidly burning home, authorities said.

A man accused of having set a house fire in East Hills that killed three Pittsburgh firefighters more than a quarter of a century ago has entered a plea that carries a conviction but spares him further jail time while allowing him to continue to maintain his innocence.

Gregory Brown Jr., 44, who served 20 years of a life sentence before winning a new trial in the 1995 Valentine's Day blaze, appeared in federal court Wednesday to enter an Alford plea, which allows a defendant to plead guilty while maintaining innocence, acknowledging that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that U.S. District Judge David Cercone, who had presided over the state court trial 25 years ago, said it was a “just and reasonable” end to the case, which he said “deserves closure.” He told the packed courtroom that “It’s time to move on.”

Brown was originally convicted in Allegheny County and sentenced to life but won a new trial after arguing that prosecutors and a federal agent failed to turn over evidence that witnesses were offered money in exchange for their testimonies.

The case was later turned over to federal prosecutors, who obtained an indictment on a charge of malicious destruction of property by fire resulting in death, a charge that could result in a life term.

Prosecutors had accused Brown, then 17, of pouring a half-gallon of gasoline on some clothes in the basement of the four-story home on Bricelyn Street and starting the blaze in hopes of collecting $20,000 in insurance money for a down payment on a new home.

Pittsburgh fire Capt. Thomas Brooks, 42, and firefighters Marc Kolenda, 27, and Patricia Conroy, 43, suffocated after they were trapped in the basement of the house and their air tanks ran out, authorities said.

Brown was originally convicted of three counts of second-degree murder, arson and related charges and sentenced to three life terms. His mother was convicted of insurance fraud and was placed on probation.

Defense attorney Michael Novara argued that his client had been wrongly convicted in the original trial but chose to enter the plea rather than go to trial and risk a life term.

“After spending 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, and having finally won his freedom, Mr. Brown is unwilling to take the chance that he might again be wrongfully convicted and sent back to prison for the rest of his life,” he said.

After the hearing, Brown expressed anger over the 20 years he had spent in prison “for nothing. For lies."

“The whole case was a lie,” Brown said. “They destroyed my whole family.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Shaun Sweeney told the court that the evidence of the defendant’s guilt was “as strong today as it was in 1997” but cited the time Brown had spent behind bars in concluding that the plea would “satisfy the interests of justice.”