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

Fire is an elemental thing. The fear of it — or excitement of it — lies buried deep in the human brain, somewhere alongside compulsions like hunger and sex and parental devotion. Like a living thing, it requires air and sustenance. Its flicker is consistent but without pattern, and can empty the mind of an entranced observer. It can be almighty; a single match head contains the power to cripple an entire city.

It’s easy to understand the appeal to anyone who fits the arsonist profile: a young white male raised in chaos, and possibly abuse. Little social skill, crushing insecurity. Intelligent but maladjusted, often struggling with drugs or alcohol, fascinated by positions of power and authority. During Juhas’s spree, for instance, he attended school to become a corrections officer. Some profilers say arsonists find sexual gratification in setting fires, but Juhas shakes his head at this suggestion. “Nah, nah,” he says, waving off the idea. “I don’t see it.”

But then he describes his former fire-starting technique, the rush and tremor of the experience, and the allure is clear: He would usually start with a heavy trash can. He’d hold a lighter to its edge for half a minute or more. “That heavy plastic is hard to get going, but once it starts, you just can’t put it out,” he says. When the plastic melted and started to drip, it emitted a squeal that appealed to him, but he rarely stayed on the scene for long. As he was getting home, he could hear the sirens and see the flashing lights as firefighters and police dashed toward the fire. “It was just something I could do and get away with,” he says.

Not forever, though. Police caught up to Juhas in December 2004, and he spent nearly two years in prison. His time there extinguished any desire to set fires, he says. Never again. But when the new wave of fires began not long after he returned to free society, he was a prime suspect. “The surveillance got bad. I mean, they were on me,” he says. “It got to the point of harassment.”

Juhas gave depositions and took a lie-detector test, did interviews with local cops, state police, FBI. And eventually it occurred to him: These guys have no idea who’s behind this.

That’s when he, the town arsonist, started to feel afraid.

Relief, at last. In August 2008, investigators seemed to solve the case: They arrested 24-year-old Robert Tribbett, who had graduated from Coatesville’s high school and now lived outside town.

According to court records, Tribbett said he had an alcohol problem and a learning disability, and couldn’t find a job. All typical. But what surprised people — what set Coatesville on edge — was that Tribbett worked in the area as a volunteer firefighter. And he had, in fact, responded to help battle some of his own fires.