NORTH TONAWANDA – Fifth Avenue residents had been living in fear this summer, unable to fathom how a quiet neighborhood like theirs could endure so much crime.
But following Wednesday morning’s arson – the 11th deliberately set fire on the block since June 20 – they hope normalcy will finally return.
Michelle L. Johnston, 41, already accused of setting nine of the fires, was arrested a second time after she allegedly started a fire at her own home at 15 Fifth Ave. and falsely reported it to authorities at about 5:40 a.m.
“They took her to jail again ... Thank God,” one relieved woman in the neighborhood said later in the morning.
“It’s amazing that no one has been killed,” a man added.
Johnston was arraigned and was being held without bail in Niagara County Jail.
Following her first arrest July 9, Johnston posted bail and returned home – next door to an 82-year-old woman’s residence she allegedly set on fire eight times.
Johnston was charged Wednesday with two counts of second-degree arson and falsely reporting an incident. One of the arson charges stems from a fire set early Sunday morning at 7 Fifth Ave., another neighboring home.
She is scheduled to appear in North Tonawanda City Court at 1:30 p.m. today. In all, Johnston faces 12 felony charges.
At 19 Fifth Ave., the site targeted most often in the arsons, Joe Basiak worked with a few other men Wednesday morning to repair the burned portions in the rear of the home of his elderly aunt, MaryJane Basiak.
A few hundred feet away, melted white siding remained on the backside of the accused arsonist’s home, which was minimally damaged.
But the woman who lived there wasn’t a bad neighbor, Joe Basiak said. On the other side of his aunt’s home lives Johnston’s father, who was equally friendly.
“They all help and take care of my aunt – cut the grass, snow blow the driveway – so they were like family,” he said of the Johnston family. “It’s just hard to believe that something like that would happen. ... We’ve known her for years. It’s tough. It’s hard. My aunt’s 82, never hurt anybody, harmed anyone. I know she’s still in shock. ”
Across the once predominately Polish neighborhood, other residents wondered the same thing: Why?
A 35-year-old woman who has lived on Fifth Avenue for all but eight months of her life said Johnston never seemed like a criminal.
“She was fine. She was normal,” she said. “I have two older sisters and we all played together with Michelle growing up.”
Her husband added, “You feel sorry because you know it had to have been a mental condition. She needs help.”
Basiak said, “Maybe a cry for help? I don’t know. It’s hard to say.”
Thomas E. Krantz, chief of detectives in the North Tonawanda Police Department, said Johnston offered no motive for burning both of her neighbors’ homes. He said she even reported some of the other fires to dispatchers.
“It’s very bizarre,” he said. “There is no animosity there in either direction. So for you to start both of your neighbors’ houses on fire numerous times, I would say that’s unusual.”
Johnston is married and currently on medical disability from work, Krantz said. Just before 10 a.m. Wednesday, her husband left their home in a black Chevrolet Impala and declined to comment.
Krantz said the community is fortunate that no one was injured in any of the fires and that damage was limited, crediting the swift response of the North Tonawanda Fire Department.
Fire Chief John C. Lapham said firefighters invested 250 man-hours in extinguishing the fires and investigating them.
“It is my hope that the residents of Fifth Avenue, and the entire city, may rest easier with the knowledge that their police and fire departments are always vigilant.”