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Trafford man denies police allegations he tried to enter burning Jeannette duplex

September 7, 2018
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Firefighters contended with hoarding conditions during a fire at a duplex on Division Street in Jeannette on Monday, Aug. 20, 2018.

A Trafford man accused of trying to get into his burning Jeannette home Monday said he only wanted to see what was going on.

Firefighters were working at Keith D. Cerqueira’s Division Street duplex when city police allege he tried to get onto his property, according to court papers.

“I wanted to see what was going on, how bad it was,” Cerqueira, 58, said after his arraignment Monday. “A lot of my property is still in there.”

Fire Chief Bill Frye said firefighters contended with hoarding conditions in Cerqueira’s half of the duplex when they responded to heavy smoke just after midnight. Firefighters at the city station noticed the smoke a couple blocks away and headed to investigate just as calls were coming in to Westmoreland 911, Frye said.

The other half of the duplex is vacant and owned by a Maryland couple, according to county records. Firefighters had a difficult time accessing Cerqueira’s side of the building, which building code official Ed Howley said was condemned last year.

“We couldn’t even get in with the amount of stuff that was stored in there,” Frye said.

Flames in the basement moved up to the structure’s attic, and firefighters contended with a collapsed floor and neighboring homes a few feet away. A state police fire marshal is investigating the cause and origin.

“The city’s trying to look into the possibility of emergency demolition,” Frye said.

No one was injured, but a couple firefighters reported being stung by wasps.

Firefighters were there more than seven hours, and crews from several area departments switched throughout the night, he said. It was about 1:10 a.m. when Cerqueira showed up, police said. He owns the property, but has lived in Trafford since moving in November, he told District Judge Joseph DeMarchis during his arraignment.

Cerqueira allegedly was drunk when he tried to get inside the house until firefighters detained him. Officers then sat him on a curb, but a short time later, police found him standing in his backyard “attempting to enter his property from a neighboring yard,” police wrote in the complaint.

He was taken into custody, and officers reported he kicked a toilet in a cell at the police station until it broke off from the wall, according to the complaint.

Cerqueira said after the hearing that he had lived on Division Street for more than 15 years and many of his possessions were still inside, including furniture, a safe and his wife’s ashes. He had been moving items out slowly after city officials told him he couldn’t live there anymore.

“I wasn’t trying to get in,” he said. “I was just trying to see what was going on. It’s my house.”

Cerqueira said the toilet broke after he kicked it out of frustration.

“I wasn’t drunk; I was upset,” he said.

DeMarchis ordered that Cerqueira stay away from the property unless he has the fire department’s permission to be there. The building has been shifting on its foundation, rendering it unfit for human occupancy, Howley said.

Cerqueira was supposed to have cleared the property in September, Howley said. Cerqueira is appealing the condemnation, and a September summary appeal trial is set.

“It was just packed full of junk, which made it more dangerous” for firefighters, Howley said.

Cerqueira is charged with institutional vandalism, obstructing emergency services, disorderly conduct and public drunkenness. An Aug. 30 preliminary hearing is set.

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