The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

December 13, 2012

Man pleads guilty in Park Haven meth lab fire

Star Beacon

JEFFERSON — A 27-year-old Ashtabula man pleaded guilty Wednesday to his part in the methamphetamine lab fire at Park Haven Nursing Home that killed his brother in March.

Keith E. Bilbrey II could serve up to 11 years in prison and pay $20,000 in fines for the first-degree felony charge of complicity to aggravated arson, Ashtabula County Common Pleas Judge Ronald Vettel said.

Bilbrey, who is being held in the Ashtabula County Jail on a separate drug charge, was escorted into the courtroom by two sheriff’s deputies. He sat at the defendant’s table with his appointed attorney, Hobart Shiflet.

When Vettel asked Bilbrey about himself, Bilbrey said he is from Ashtabula and has four children.

He also said he’s been “locked up since Aug. 29.” That’s when Bilbrey was nabbed in a separate meth case, in which he was charged with illegal assembly or possession of chemicals for the manufacture of drugs, a third-degree felony, according to court records.

When Vettel asked Bilbrey what happened on the night of the March 4 fire at Park Haven Nursing Home in Ashtabula, Bilbrey stuttered for a moment.

“My brother, I helped my brother,” he said. “I aided and abetted a little bit. There was an explosion and that led me here.”

Bilbrey pleaded guilty to information filed by the state of Ohio, and waived his right of indictment by the Ashtabula County grand jury.

Ashtabula County Assistant Prosecutor Susan Thomas said she believes the complicity to aggravated arson charge “encompasses the defendant’s participation in the explosion.”

She plans to ask the Vettel to sentence Bilbrey to five years in prison to run consecutively with three years on the drug charge, she said.

Shiflet said he reserves the right to argue for another penalty for his client.

Vettel said in this case, Bilbrey will have to serve the prison term he gives him.

“There is no early release; no getting out early for good behavior,” he said. “You will be made subject to mandatory post-release controls for five years.”

Vettel said this is a serious case as Bilbrey helped Kevin Bucci and Shaun Warrens risk the physical harm of others. The fire took the life of 31-year-old Warrens.

Vettel then ordered an update on the pre-sentence investigation and scheduled the sentencing hearing for both charges at 2 p.m. Dec. 31 in his courtroom.

Lt. Ron Deemer, fire prevention officer for the Ashtabula City Fire Department, was in the courtroom for the hearing.

Park Haven, 4533 Park Ave., closed within months of the fire after being found in violation of seven federal guidelines, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

The deficiencies, which included failure to provide smoke detectors and written plans for emergencies, were based on investigations at the facility, said Tessie Pollock, ODH spokeswoman.

The fire occurred at 8:37 p.m. March 4 in room 18 on the second floor, according to the Ashtabula Fire Department’s report.

Warrens died at the MetroHealth Burn Care Center. The death was ruled accidental, according to the Cuyahoga County Coroner’s report.

Four other people were hospitalized at Ashtabula County Medical Center after the fire, and two people treated at the scene for smoke inhalation.