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Alton firefighter facing five counts of arson


March 24, 2010
ALTON — A report of suspicious activity on Range Road late last week led to the arrest of a longtime Alton firefighter who now stands accused of five counts of arson.

Stark Liedtke of Dudley Road, a 22-year veteran of the Alton Fire Department who was serving as a lieutenant at the time of his arrest, was arraigned at Belknap County District Court in Laconia Monday on five felony counts of arson and two misdemeanor charges stemming from actions that led to his arrest on March 19.

According to an affadavit filed with the court, the Alton Police Department received a complaint Friday evening from a Range Road resident who claimed to have just chased a prowler off his property.

After calling assistance from the state police and forming a perimeter around the area, officers began a search for the suspect.

Upon entering the nearby Hannaford supermarket, Sgt. Richard Vanderhoof spotted Liedtke, who matched the suspect's description, purchasing items at a cash register. Officers continued to observe Liedtke as he passed through the supermarket's parking lot and made his way to Route 28.

When stopped by police on Route 28 and asked what he was doing, Liedtke replied that he had purchased milk and doughnuts at the supermarket and was returning to his vehicle, which he claimed to have parked at Alton Circle Grocery.

When Officer Tyler Glidden, who had previously had contact with Liedtke and knew what his vehicle looked like, reported that he did not see it in the Circle Grocery's parking lot, Liedtke changed his story and claimed that he had parked his vehicle along the highway. Police, however, were unable to verify that claim.

The officers questioning Liedtke said in the affadavit that they noticed a strong odor of gasoline wafting off of him during the conversation.

Taking into account what they called "the totality of circumstances" (the smell of gasoline, the earlier complaint of loitering, and the sudden change in Liedtke's story), the officers placed him under arrest on charges of loitering and prowling.

While searching Liedtke, police reportedly found a large box of matches and a headlamp, along with a utility knife, a wallet, miscellaneous papers, and a pager issued to him by the fire department. The officers who booked him also reported that he was covered in dirt and mud, indicating that he had been in the area where the prowler was seen.

Liedtke's vehicle was later found behind a state Department of Transportation facility near Range Road, parked in a manner that police said prevented it from being seen by passersby.

With help from the state Fire Marshal's search dog, Andre, which tracked the odor of gasoline into a wooded area near the house where Liedtke had been spotted earlier, authorities located a plastic bag containing two bottles filled with a substance that reportedly smelled like gasoline.

During further questioning by police, Liedtke admitted that he had planned to walk to an abandoned house located at 117 New Durham Road, which he claimed to have set on fire last month by reaching through a window and holding a lighter to a curtain, and ignite another fire.

Liedtke also reportedly confessed to setting a total of 11 fires in and around Alton since 2006, including two separate blazes at unoccupied buildings on Suncook Valley Road in August of that year; a fire at another residence on the same road on Nov. 22, 2006; and three structure fires in New Durham, along with several small brush fires.

Alton Police Chief Ryan Heath explained during a press conference Monday morning that his department is still working with state investigators to piece together the full extent of the damage Liedtke is allegedly responsible for.

"It's substantial," he said. "We're talking about a lot of incidents and structures, not to mention the monetary value of the services that Alton and the local communities had provided with fire service."

According to Heath, the alleged arsonist provided no motive for his actions other than to say that he simply "got bored."

Liedtke, who was suspended from the fire department Monday, entered a plea of not guilty to the two misdemeanor charges against him, and is scheduled to appear in court for a probably cause hearing on the felony charges March 31.

With Liedtke unable to pay the $30,000 cash bail set for the felony charges, Judge Lawrence McLeod, Jr. ordered him held at the Belknap County House of Corrections.

Heath said during the press conference Monday that police had spoken with members of Liedtke's family, including his wife (who currently serves on the fire department as an EMT), who all "claimed to not have any knowledge of what was going on," and were "taken by shock."

"The state Fire Marshal's office will continue to investigate this jointly, and we appreciate their assistance," he added. "Most likely, there will be more charges forthcoming."

Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or bberube@salmonpress.com

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