Coatesville Fires: The Town That Burned Itself Down

For 18 months, Chester County’s Coatesville, once a thriving steel-industry town, was besieged by fire after fire — set by the residents themselves. A shocking mystery unraveled

When the steel industry crashed in the 1970s, Coatesville collapsed along with it. The steel mill’s 6,000-man workforce shrank to just hundreds. Everyone with a useful skill left town to find work elsewhere, and dumped property on the way out. Absentee landlords scooped up the cheap land and rented it out at low rates, which created a peculiar phenomenon. Chester County is the richest county in the state, with some of the most expensive property — horse country — to be found anywhere. So when Coatesville collapsed, it created a financial vacuum that drew in the county’s poorest residents. They were largely people who lived on welfare, almost by definition, because the town offered no work, and after the steel jobs evaporated, the regional train started blowing right past Coatesville’s decrepit train station. Many people couldn’t afford a car. There was no work within walking distance. No way to afford rent elsewhere in Chester County.

So there was no real way in or out of the valley. And that’s how it happened: That’s how the wealthiest county in Pennsylvania wound up with a charred, smoking financial hole at its center.

People in Coatesville describe their town in even harsher language. Charlene Coates grew up here, after all. She has worked at the town’s library for three decades. The town bears her very name. And none of it matters. “Walk around,” she says, waving an arm toward the street. “There is no reason for anybody to live here.”

Road, Church Street, Strode Avenue.

Midway through 2008, the speculation among firefighters had hardened into a certainty that someone — some young guy, probably, with issues — wanted to burn Coatesville to the ground.

By then, Matt Juhas could look out his window in the West End neighborhood and pick out the undercover agents sent to track him. He particularly liked the white Cadillac. “I’m surprised it took them as long as it did,” 24-year-old Juhas says. When a wave of fires breaks on a small town and you’re that town’s only known serial arsonist, pessimism comes easy.

Juhas started setting fires — the 19 he served time for, at least — in 2003, when he was a teenager. One fire he started, he said, because he wanted revenge. Somebody didn’t give him the particular car he expected, for instance, so he burned down the garage that housed the car. “I was being stupid,” he says. “You know.”

But it wasn’t stupidity, exactly. Or revenge. After a while, something else impelled him to light fires, an impulse that even now he can’t quite name. “It wasn’t a … fascination,” he says. “I don’t know.”