SNOW HILL – An Ocean City man indicted by a Worcester County grand jury in August on first-degree arson charges for setting the fire that destroyed the Dough Roller restaurant on the south end of the Boardwalk and damaged the adjacent Marty’s Playland back in March pleaded guilty this week to a lesser reckless endangerment charge and will not face any additional jail time.
In August, a Worcester County grand jury formally indicted Gregory W. Wallace Kern, 48, of Ocean City on two counts of first-degree arson for allegedly setting the fire that destroyed the apartments over the two businesses, and two counts of second-degree arson for the businesses themselves. Kern, who was an employee of the Dough Roller at the time of the fire, was also charged with one count of reckless endangerment for placing the 16 residents of the various apartments on the site at risk of injury or death.
On Monday, Kern entered an Alford Plea to the reckless endangerment charge and arson charges against him were dismissed. In an Alford Plea, a defendant does not admit guilt, but concedes the state likely has enough evidence to convict him if the case proceeded to trial. Before Kern could formally enter his Alford Plea for reckless endangerment on Monday, prosecutor Paul Haskell took the arson charges off the table.
“The state will not prosecute the arson charges,” Haskell told visiting Circuit Court Judge Alfred Truitt. “That’s simply because we don’t have any proof of arson, and not because it’s part of any plea arrangement.”
What turned out to be a nine-alarm fire was first reported shortly after noon on Sunday, March 30 and quickly filled the entire downtown area with thick, billowing smoke. OCPD officers first responded to the scene at 12:04 p.m. for a reported fight in progress. When the officers arrived, they observed the initial smoke and flames that would ultimately destroy the Dough Roller and the neighboring T-shirt shop, Sunshine Beachwear, and damage historic Marty’s Playland.
Ocean City Fire Services were the first to arrive to the blaze that quickly spread to become a nine-alarm fire. Over the course of the next two-plus hours, 22 fire companies joined the Ocean City crews, bringing in 38 fire engines and 15 trucks to battle the blaze. Fire companies from Worcester and Wicomico counties in Maryland and Sussex County in Delaware joined the local effort and were able to bring the fire under control by about 2:25 p.m.
The Ocean City Fire Marshal’s Office investigated the cause of the blaze and discovered its point of origin in an alleyway between the Dough Roller and Marty’s Playland. In the months following the fire, little information came to light about the origin of the fire or who caused it until the Worcester County grand jury announced in August it had indicted Kern on arson charges.
During the course of the investigation, detectives identified Kern, who was an employee of the Dough Roller at the time, as a suspect in the case. When they first questioned Kern, the suspect admitted he had been on the second floor of the building smoking a cigarette, but told police he had extinguished the cigarette in a cup of water.
However, detectives noticed burn marks on Kern’s clothing and continued to question the suspect about his involvement. According to the statement of charges read into the record on Monday, Kern then told detectives “there was something he needed to get off his chest,” and retold a different story about what had happened that morning.
Kern told police he had been working for Dough Roller when the company offered him employee housing in one of the apartments over the restaurant. Kern said he was on break that Sunday when he went upstairs to check out his new living quarters. Kern admitted flicking a lit cigarette into a pile of rubbish in the alleyway between the two buildings.
He told police he did so accidentally and did not intend to start the fire. Earlier, the Fire Marshal had ruled the cause of the fire was accidental and ruled out any electrical sources. The Fire Marshal also determined no accelerants were used to start or spread the fire.
On Monday, Kern entered an Alford Plea to the lesser reckless endangerment charge and was found guilty. The reckless endangerment charge carries a maximum sentence of five years and/or a $5,000 fine. Kern’s attorney public defender Burton Anderson urged Truitt to consider a lenient sentence for his client, given the apparent accidental nature of the crime.
“Given what he did, I encourage the court to consider this a time-served case,” he said. “Under the circumstances, I think sentencing him to the time he has already served would be appropriate.’
Truitt obliged, sentencing Kern to 118 days in jail, with credit given for the 118 days he has served while awaiting trial, essentially allowing him to walk away after his plea hearing on Monday. For his part, Kern showed some remorse for starting the fire and hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages it caused.
“I apologize for this mess, but it was an unfortunate accident,” he said. “I enjoyed working for Dough Roller and intend to stay with the company.”