Woman accused of setting fire to home eight times

NORTH TONAWANDA, N.Y. (WIVB) – A hidden camera led to the arrest of a woman accused of setting eight separate fires at a neighboring home.

Michelle Johnston, 41, was arrested Wednesday night and arraigned Thursday morning on nine counts of arson. She’s accused of setting fires to homes on both sides of her home on 5th Avenue in the past three weeks.

“I would have never thought that she would be the one,” said neighbor Scott Parry.

Neighbor Danielle Petlo says she was terrified after the first couple of fires.

“My mom actually bought motion detectors for the property around my house.”

Eight of those fires were at 19 5th Avenue, a home occupied by an older woman who hasn’t been able to live there since the first fire. The last one occurred Wednesday afternoon, about 30 minutes after North Tonawanda Police had finished talking with Johnston at her home.

Police had spoken with her a few times over the past few weeks to gather whatever information she had observed from next door.

“We were just completely in shock when we found out because we were over there with her for every fire,” said neighbor Ann Swann-Lembke. “She would say she didn’t understand why it was going on, when it’s going to stop, how crazy it was, why would anybody target Maryanne, I’m so scared.”

In fact, it was Johnston herself who told neighbors that surveillance cameras had been set up on her father’s home two doors down in the hopes of catching the firebug. Neighbors and police set up their own cameras and police say at least one of those cameras caught images of her.

North Tonawanda Police Chief William Hall says she admitted to setting about half of the fires, and they have charged her with all nine.

Chief Hall won’t speculate on what may have motivated her.

“They interviewed her for four or five hours, there’s no clear reason. She wasn’t feuding with anybody over there. By all accounts her neighbors got along with her. I don’t think anything anybody had to say about her was bad,” he said.

Fire crews have often responded to her house for what neighbors believe were anxiety attacks according to neighbor Ann Swann-Lembke, who said, “We were just all sort of upset with ourselves that we didn’t recognize not only that it was her doing it, but why she was doing this. It was obviously a need for help and none of us recognized that.”

Johnston is currently being held in the Niagara County Jail on $40,000 bail. Her next scheduled appearance in North Tonawanda City Court is July 17.

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