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July 11, 2014

Police charge neighbor for Fifth Avenue arsons

Tonawanda News — After a weeks-long investigation into a chain of arsons on Fifth Avenue, North Tonawanda police detectives arrested a woman residing on the street. 

Michelle L. Johnston, 41, 15 Fifth Ave,, was charged with nine counts of arson — all felonies — after police said she gave a confession on Wednesday evening, admitting to some, but not all of the incidents mostly aimed at her next door neighbor. 

In total, police said there were eight fires set at 19 Fifth Ave., directly next to Johnston’s home, along with one at 7 Fifth Ave., beginning on June 20 and ending Wednesday. Suspicions first arose over the possibility of arson when firefighters were called to the street four times in less than 36 hours on June 20 and 21. 

Several more small fires ensued over the last week, including one on Saturday, another on Sunday and three on Wednesday, police said. 

North Tonawanda Police Lt. Karen Smith said while Johnston admitted to setting four of the fires she was charged for all nine of them, but did not give a reason for her actions, only adding that she did not hold any personal animosity toward her neighbors.  

“She wasn’t targeting any of her neighbors,” Smith said. “There was no feud, there was no ill will on either side of her.” 

Smith said Johnston was also aware of video surveillance affixed to a nearby home, which ultimately led police to catching Johnston in the act. Smith declined to say how Johnston started the fires. 

“None of them really burned out of control,” Smith said. 

Fire officials believe about $35,000 in damage was incurred at the homes as a result of the fires. 

Police said Johnston does not have a criminal record and was in fact the person who first placed many of the 911 calls informing rescue workers of the fires. 

She was arrested at 7:25 p.m. on Wednesday after interviews were conducted by police detectives. Johnston was arraigned Thursday morning in front of Judge Richard Lewis on two counts of second-degree arson and four counts of fourth-degree arson. She was remanded to Niagara County Jail in lieu of $40,000 bail. 

Contact reporter Michael Regan at 693-1000, ext. 4115.

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