Son Charged In House Fire That Killed 2

Posted: February 20, 1987

Washington Township teenager Thomas Batchelor confessed yesterday to setting the blaze that took the lives of his mother and half brother Tuesday and left the rest of his family homeless for the second time in four months, Gloucester County investigators said.

Batchelor, 18, was charged late yesterday afternoon with two counts of aggravated manslaughter and one count of aggravated arson, after a day of intense questioning at the county Prosecutor's Office.

The choice of the manslaughter charge - rather than murder - indicates that authorities think Batchelor deliberately started the fire at the Aldeberan Court townhouse but did not intend to kill his mother, Jean, 44, and half brother Michael, 8, Prosecutor Richard E. Hickey 3d said.

Batchelor was being held last night at the Gloucester County Jail in Woodbury after failing to post $200,000 bail. He will be arraigned today.

Although Batchelor was charged only in connection with the Tuesday morning fire at the family's rented home, officials are continuing to investigate the string of fires that plagued the family over the last two years - including one that destroyed the Batchelors' previous Washington Township home in November. Township fire officials had ruled that fire accidental, saying it was caused by frayed electrical wiring.

Hickey would not comment on a motive for Tuesday's fire. He said Thomas Batchelor, who neighbors said had recently dropped out of Washington Township High School, was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the fire.

The fire Tuesday in which Jean and Michael Batchelor died while huddled in an upstairs closet was the fourth time that the family had reported a fire at the Aldeberan Court home within the last three weeks.

Police records show that in the days leading up to Tuesday's fatal fire, family members apparently became convinced they were the target of harassment. Early Monday morning, the Batchelors placed four frantic telephone calls to police within a three-hour period to complain of strangers prowling near the home.

The police responded to each call but found no prowlers.

When police again were summoned early Tuesday morning, they found the house engulfed in flames.

Hickey said investigators now think the blaze was started in the dining room and was fueled by cartons containing household possessions that had not yet been unpacked.

He would not elaborate on the exact means used to start the blaze, except to say that no accelerant was used. "He didn't do it by rubbing two sticks together," Hickey said.

Fire officials and neighbors said the blaze spread through the two-story house within minutes, shooting through the roof and scorching the outside wall of a neighboring home. Four family members - Thomas Batchelor; his stepfather, Albert Batchelor, 44; his half brother Timothy, 5, and his pregnant girlfriend, Susan McGaughan, 17 - escaped by climbing out a second- floor window and scrambling to the ground, according to an account from Washington Township police.

Until yesterday, investigators were having difficulty establishing the origin of the fire. While questioning Thomas Batchelor yesterday, Hickey said, investigators obtained a court order permitting them to take hair and blood samples from the teenager. His stepfather and girlfriend were also questioned yesterday. No charges are pending against them, Hickey said.

After Tuesday's fire, the surviving family members were housed at the Mayfair Motel in Washington Township. They were moved yesterday to an undisclosed location, Hickey said, and could not be reached for comment.

The first three incidents of fire at the Batchelors' Aldeberan Court home were discovered in the garage.

The family reported a small fire Jan. 28 in their pickup truck, which had been parked inside the attached garage. Two weeks later, on Feb. 13, police records show, two small, separate fires were found in the garage - one in the front seat of the truck and one on the floor of the garage. Three days later, the Batchelors reported a minor fire inside the garage.

The family had also been troubled by fires at their previous residence on Arcturus Drive. According to Washington Township fire official John Spangler, Thomas Batchelor took the blame for a fire that occurred almost two years ago at the ranch house, saying he had been smoking in bed. That fire started in the mattress and damaged the rear of the house.

Then, last November, the entire house was gutted by an electrical fire. Township fire officials blamed the careless use of an extension cord, which had been run underneath a door. The constant opening and closing of the door caused the wire to ignite, Spangler said.

The family decided to rent the rowhouse on Aldeberan Court while they renovated the other home.

At the time, Thomas Batchelor had left school and joined his stepfather's business of installing fencing.

With the series of small fires at the Aldeberan Court residence, neighbors there said they became fearful that a major fire at the Batchelor home would spread to other rowhouses in the development.

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