Arson suspect's family, friends say he faced mental crisis and needed help

Philip Jordan

PITTSFIELD — The son of the man suspected of starting four fires in Pittsfield on Saturday feels let down by civic institutions that did not respond in time to his family's repeated calls for help, as Phillip J. Jordan's mental health crisis worsened.

Quade Rocke said his father, who was was arraigned Monday in Vermont on a charge of being a fugitive from justice, was mentally unstable at the time he is believed to have set the blazes, the most serious of which ravaged his own longtime home at 112 Appleton Ave., on a quiet residential block southeast of Pittsfield's downtown.

On social media, Rocke appealed for understanding, asking people to sympathize with the family's plight.

"Please don't jump to your own conclusions and slander his name," Rocke posted on Facebook. "He is struggling extremely hard and truly isn't himself anymore. It's been absolutely heartbreaking."

Rocke and other acquaintances told The Eagle that Jordan was struggling to maintain his mental health and was not the kind of person who would seek to harm others. It was not clear what mental illness his father struggles with.

No one was injured in Saturday's fires, which in addition to Jordan's home struck 47 Fort Hill Ave., off West Street; at 42-22 Brown St. in the city's Morningside section; and at 85 Ridge Ave., near the southwestern corner of Pontoosuc Lake.

Jordan was ordered held Monday in Vermont on $25,000 bail after being arrested Sunday by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents. He was taken into custody in Highgate Springs, Vt., near the Canadian border.

"The Phil that I knew from years ago was a calm and compassionate person; a really wise soul," said Joshua Burke, 25, a friend of the family who was one of more than 60 people to post replies to Rocke's call for public understanding.

"He was just a good guy. I know that he tried to seek help with his mental state. Mental health is to be taken seriously, and I hope they understand that," Burke said.

Rocke said he contacted authorities and mental health outreach centers both in Pittsfield and in his home city of Burlington, Vt., seeking intervention that might aid his father, to no avail.

"They said he needed to be in the act of suicide for them to take him in," Rocke said.

After visiting his father's ruined home Monday, Rocke shared his frustration with a mental health system that in this case failed to respond in time.

"I'm very bummed it came to this," Rocke said.

"He was truly a kind and loving person before he got sick. We fished, grew gardens and loved making wine," he said of his father. "A lot of the best and strongest qualities I possess were from his mentoring."

Rocke said his father stepped up to care for him, particularly when Rocke's mother was dying.

"He was always there for me, and it's a shame to see how much help he did not get," he said.

Through the afternoon, cars repeatedly slowed or stopped in front of the more than century-old house, as drivers viewed the fire's destruction. Acorns from a nearby oak, perhaps dried out by Saturday's flames, fell onto a sidewalk still roped off by yellow police tape. As of Monday, the house was still not secure, with window glass gone and slate shingles loosened on the roof.

Jordan had owned the home since 1994, according to property records.

Leon S. Serra, who lives at 116 Appleton Ave. next to Jordan's home, said he had become aware of his neighbor's mental health struggles.

"I could see he was getting worse and worse," Serra said from his doorway Monday.

Serra said that in the roughly 25 years he and Jordan were neighbors, they were "amicable" but not close, and occasionally faced off over noise and traffic issues. Jordan long rented rooms, operating a kind of boarding house.

At the time of Saturday's fire, no tenants remained, however.

"He knew no one was there. He had no intention of hurting anyone," Serra said.

One former tenant, reached by phone at her current home in Phoenix, said that the last time she saw Jordan, a year ago, he seemed to be under stress.

The tenant said she wasn't aware of what led to Jordan's apparent breakdown this week, but said it was out of character for him. The tenant asked that her name not be used.

She said Jordan was known for opening up his home to people who needed help.

Another acquaintance interviewed by The Eagle echoed the view that violent or destructive behavior was not in keeping with the "gentle man" they know.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.