A 30-year-old East Kingston man was found guilty of arson and criminal mischief in connection with two fires in February of 2018.
Michael Watzka Jr. was arrested last September following an investigation into a suspicious Feb. 22 at 114 John St. in East Kingston that destroyed an abandoned garage and, two days later, another suspicious fire at the former East Kingston Methodist Church on Brigham Street less than a block from the first fire. According to the DA’s office, the second fire was so intense that firefighters had to do a “surround and drown”, pumping thousands of gallons of water into the structure. The flames could be seen for miles. At the height of the fire, the two-story building’s walls collapsed outward nearly crushing several firefighters.
The fires were deemed suspicious as there was no electricity connected to either building, the proximity of the two structures, and that the fires occurred only two days apart.
The Town of Ulster Police began a four-month intensive investigation that led to the arrest of Watzka, a volunteer firefighter for the East Kingston Fire Department. Watzka was the first responder to each fire and participated in fighting both fires.
According to the DA’s office, Watzka had made several statements to his then-girlfriend indicating that he wanted to burn the two buildings to clear a line of sight between his residence and hers. He also reportedly told friends that wrapping duct tap around one’s shoes could disguise footprints.
The Ulster County Arson Task Force located a beer bottle near the area of the first fire that had defendant’s DNA. Also found at the first fire were a set of footprints that had duct tape impressions. A video at the East Kingston Fire depicted Watzka reaching deep into a trash can, appearing to hide something. The Town of Ulster Police located crumpled duct tape in that trash can.
The trial commenced on Monday, June 17, and proof concluded yesterday. The jury deliberated for less than two hours. Watzka was convicted of third-degree and fifth-degree arson, and third-degree criminal mischief.
The trial was presided over by the Hon. Donald Williams. Watzka faces a maximum state prison sentence of fifteen years. He will be sentenced on September 6, 2019 in the Ulster County Court.
This case was prosecuted by Sr. Assistant District Attorney Clifford Owens and Assistant District Attorney Jarrid Blades. The defendant was represented by Russell Schindler of the Public Defender’s Office.