Suspected arsonist accused of setting fire at her home

NORTH TONAWANDA, N.Y. (WIVB) – A woman is facing more charges for yet another fire on a North Tonawanda street. This time police say she set a fire at her own home.

Police say Michelle Johnston lied to them about a fire at her home, claiming someone else started the blaze Wednesday morning. Officers say Johnston set the fire herself.

The 41-year-old 5th Avenue resident has already been charged with nine counts of arson. She allegedly set one of her neighbor’s homes on fire eight separate times.

She was arrested for a second time on Wednesday and charged with two counts of second degree arson and second degree falsely reporting an incident. Police say not only did she start a fire at 7 5th Avenue on Sunday, she started a fire at her own home on Wednesday and lied about it.

Police say after her first arrest, she admitted to setting the first nine fires. Officers say previously she lived her life crime-free.

Joe Basiak’s 82-year-old aunt lived in the house at 19 5th Avenue that has been set on fire eight separate times. He says before this, he thought of Johnston as a good neighbor.

“It’s just sad, knowing someone like that for so long then something like that happens, you know? We’re all friends and family. They cut the grass. Snow blow the driveway.”

None of the neighbors nor police understand what sparked Johnston’s alleged arson spree.

North Tonawanda Police Capt. Thomas Kranz said, “There’s no animosity there in either direction. And I don’t think there’s any animosity in the other direction.”

Those on 5th Avenue say those most directly affected want everyone to understand just how serious these crimes are.

Basiak said, “I spoke with one of the tenants who was inside sleeping during Sunday morning’s big fire. He says, in his opinion, Michelle Johnston tried to kill him.”

That house at 7 5th Avenue is now unlivable.

Neighbors had been living in fear when after her first arrest, Johnston was released on bail by City Court Judge William R. Lewis.

Liz Konieczka said, “I just think it makes no sense in the first place why she would be let out on bail.”

Danielle Petko added, “Who else? After all that then she’s back and there’s another fire. It’s just too coincidental.”

Eugene Moderacki and Scott Parry never bought the notion that a copycat arsonist might be to blame for Sunday’s fire.

“I think someone else would be afraid to come here, because they’d be afraid police are watching,” said Parry.

Moderacki added, “And why the judge would even let her out? I don’t understand it. All I know is when he comes up for re-election, he ain’t getting our votes!”

Police were watching, and that’s how Johnston was caught. But this time, she is being held without bail in the Niagara County Jail.

Johnston is due back in court Thursday at 1:30 p.m. At that point, her lawyer will likely argue for the judge to set a bail amount.

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