Man pleads guilty to setting Philadelphia International Records fire

Christopher Cimini was drunk, his lawyer said.
Christopher Cimini was drunk, his lawyer said.
Posted: July 14, 2010

A 28-year-old South Philadelphia man pleaded guilty Tuesday to setting fire in February to Philadelphia International Records in an arson that damaged $3.5 million in property and destroyed priceless memorabilia - gold and platinum records, photographs, and other valuables housed where Patti LaBelle and Teddy Pendergrass once recorded.

Christopher Cimini was so drunk when he started the fire that he has no memory of doing it, his lawyer told Common Pleas Court Judge Glenn Bronson.

"He has no recollection of anything past 10 o'clock the prior night," said Gina Capuano, adding Cimini's blood-alcohol level that night was about four times the legal threshold for intoxication.

Cimini pleaded guilty to felony charges of arson, causing a catastrophe, criminal trespass, and related offenses.

Cimini, an iron worker, who has been free on bail since shortly after his arrest in February, could face more than 50 years in prison. Assistant District Attorney Peter Salib said he probably would recommend less than 10 years at Cimini's sentencing in September.

Cimini, a father of two, must also pay $11,000 to Philadelphia International Records to cover the amount of the company's insurance deductible.

Capuano plans to ask the judge that Cimini be allowed to serve at least part of his sentence on house arrest, she said, so that he could continue to work and earn money to pay restitution.

Cimini had no connection with Philadelphia International Records, at Broad and Spruce Streets. Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and Thom Bell own the company.

He was caught on surveillance-camera video as he tried to get through the front door of the building about 6:30 a.m. Feb. 21. Cimini started kicking in the glass door and, eventually, forced his way in, cutting his arms in the process, Salib said.

Leaving a trail of blood on the floor, Salib said, Cimini hung up his coat, then sprayed a fire extinguisher all over the first floor, which set off the fire alarm. Cimini then went to the third floor, where the recording studios are, and cameras captured him as he used a lighter to set fire to objects.

Smoke quickly filled the room, setting off another alarm, and firefighters arrived at the building soon after. They spotted Cimini hanging out a third-story window and rescued him, then took him to a hospital, where he was treated for smoke inhalation.

"Looking at the videotapes, he was extremely upset," Capuano said of Cimini. "He basically thanks God he made it out alive."

In the hospital, Cimini seemed drunk, Salib said. He also told officials there were others in the building, prompting firefighters to risk their lives in the process of trying to find them.

Firefighters soon extinguished the blaze, which permanently damaged the recording studios. Given the age and construction of the building, Salib said, the fire could have quickly spread to the whole block.

"We are very fortunate no one died," said Phil Asbury, senior vice president of Philadelphia International Records.

Fire spared the recording studio that spawned the Sound of Philadelphia. The studio's master recordings are kept in a vault outside the city.


Contact staff writer Allison Steele at 215-854-2641 or asteele@phillynews.com.

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