NJ girl accused of setting home fire just moved in

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By MARYCLAIRE DALE, Associated Press

WOODBURY, N.J. (AP) — A 15-year-old girl charged with setting her home ablaze and trying to kill family members sleeping inside had moved back in with her mother only days before, relatives said Tuesday.

The mother and stepfather, both corrections officers, wanted her to start 10th grade in rural Clayton, but she wanted to return to her father's house near Philadelphia, they said.

"She doesn't like being in that house," said cousin Edna Chavez, 26, of Glassboro. Nonetheless, Chavez said she hadn't thought the tension amounted to much more than "typical teenage" behavior.

About two dozen relatives from both sides of the family turned out for a juvenile detention hearing Tuesday to support the girl, whom they described as a favorite niece and good student. Some knew of the brewing dispute but were stunned to hear news of the fire early Saturday, when gasoline poured in the upstairs hallway burst into flames inside the new-model house.

Six people were injured, including the mother, stepfather, a visiting uncle, the teen and two other children.

Defense lawyer Richard Josselson called his client "very distraught (and) very upset about what happened."

"This is a very good and just a very sweet girl," Josselson said Tuesday, after a Gloucester County judge detained his client while she undergoes a mental health evaluation. "She's an honor student and has never been in trouble before."

The Associated Press is not naming the girl because she is a juvenile. She is charged with two counts of aggravated arson and six counts of attempted murder. Prosecutors have not yet decided whether to seek to try her as an adult.

The mother has been released from a burn center where she was treated for smoke inhalation, while the other victims have been released or are recovering, authorities said.

The teen had gone to elementary school in Pennsauken, then moved to Clayton for middle school after her parents split up, according to relatives, neighbors and school officials. She withdrew from Clayton High School after only a few weeks last year and returned to Pennsauken, about 25 miles away. But she came back to Clayton on Thursday, relatives said.

The girl's mother and stepfather were not in court. Her father declined to comment.

In addition to the adults, the other victims were the uncle's son; the teen's younger sister, who hurt her hip when she jumped from a second-story window; and the teen, who suffered injuries to her feet. Her 6-year-old brother was uninjured.

Smoke alarms awakened the family to the 2 a.m. fire, and the adults helped rescue the children. Firefighters responded quickly, and the damage was mostly contained to the inside of the home. There's little damage outside, even to the vinyl siding.

The family had moved in about three years ago and was well regarded in the neighborhood. Neighbors and a former classmate of the teen said the parents were strict and the children well-behaved.

The family includes the mother's three children and the stepfather's son, an eighth-grader who wasn't home Saturday.

"They're very well-mannered kids," said neighbor Tina Siugzda, whose sons are friendly with the boys. "It's amazing the things that you don't know that's going on with kids sometimes."

The teen returns to court on Sept. 5 for another detention hearing. No dates have been set for a trial or preliminary hearing, according to Assistant Gloucester County Prosecutor Janis Melfi.

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