Police accuse former Salvation Army Major of arson at Tamaqua center
Former Salvation Army Major Sharon Whispell faces arson charges stemming from a May 12 fire at the organizaiton’s Tamaqua Corps Community Center.
A former Salvation Army official accused of stealing money from the organization’s Tamaqua Corps Community Center now faces arson charges for setting a fire in the building in May.
No one was hurt in the fire and damage was limited to one room of the center.
Sharon Whispell, 53, of Griffin, Georgia, formerly of Tamaqua, was in town for a hearing on theft charges on Tuesday when she learned that Tamaqua Police had charged her with arson.
The fire started at 10 a.m. May 12 in a clothing donation storage room at the Corps Center, 105 W. Broad St.
A Tamaqua police officer and two other men responded and extinguished a fire inside a clothing storage bin with fire extinguishers.
At the time of the fire, Whispell’s daughter, grandchildren, and another person were inside an upstairs apartment at the center.
A state police fire marshal determined the fire to be arson.
Police said surveillance video from the center on the morning of the fire shows that Whispell was the only person who had access to the storage room where the fire took place. A boy seen on video meeting with Whispell 10 minutes before the fire alarm reportedly told officers that he gave Whispell a cigarette lighter. He said she asked him to retrieve the lighter from the upstairs apartment.
Whispell was informed that there was smoke in the building two minutes before the fire alarm, but she did not attempt to use a fire extinguisher which was located near the storage room. She allegedly told police that she could not use the extinguisher due to her asthma.
The alarm should have alerted the center’s alarm company, but there was a telephone problem in the building at the time.
Following Tuesday’s hearing, Whispell denied setting the fire. She said she was very surprised by the charges.
“My entire career, all I’ve ever done is help administer to people, and the last thing I’d do is to harm another living soul. Especially since my daughter and grandchildren were in the building.”
Whispell was originally scheduled to be in district court Tuesday in Tamaqua for a scheduled hearing for theft by deception and other related charges. She waived that hearing.
Tamaqua Police have accused Whispell of submitting fraudulent receipts for tens of thousands of dollars worth of expenses over a three and a half-year period, while she was employed as the local administrative officer of the Tamaqua Corps.
The Salvation Army said they discovered financial irregularities during an annual internal audit of the Tamaqua Corps Community Center.
On Tuesday, the prosecutor in the case said the total amount that Whispell was accused of stealing was actually overstated by about $36,000 when she was originally charged. The actual amount she is accused of stealing is now $80,313. Because of the updated total, prosecutors lowered the grading of the felony charges she is facing.
Her public defender in the theft case, William Burke, said his office plans to look closely to determine if there were any other inaccuracies when investigators calculated the money that Whispell allegedly stole. He said his client has denied stealing the money.
In the arson case, Whispell faces two counts of arson, one count of aggravated arson because people were present in the building, risking catastrophe, and four counts of recklessly endangering another person.
Magisterial District Judge Steven Bayer set a preliminary hearing for Oct. 1 in the case. He agreed to release Whispell on unsecured bail for the arson charges. There was no opposition from the Schuylkill County District Attorney’s Office, though the arresting officer, Thomas Rodgers, questioned if Whispell would have the money to travel back to Tamaqua for future court dates.
Whispell responded that she is currently living in Georgia with friends who drove her to Tamaqua for Tuesday’s hearing. She said the friends would make sure that she was present for all upcoming court hearings.
She is still out on bail in the theft case after posting a $25,000 bond the day of her arrest.
A handful of supporters from the Tamaqua Community Corps Center attended the hearing. Evelyn Willing said she wanted to show Whispell that she was there for her.
“She’s a good person. She wouldn’t hurt nobody,” Willing said.
Officials from the Salvation Army of Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware were also in the courtroom Tuesday. The officials declined to comment but issued a statement saying they were saddened to hear that Whispell was charged with arson.
“Our paramount concern is for the Tamaqua community and the people we serve. Fortunately, no one was injured,” the statement read. “Our premises are secure, and we continue to offer our full complement of services.”
They said Whispell has not been affiliated with the Salvation Army for some time, and new administrative officers are overseeing services in Tamaqua.