Pittsfield arson suspect remains jailed in Vermont ahead of Wednesday hearing

PITTSFIELD — Due to a crowded court calendar, the man suspected of setting a string of Pittsfield fires remains jailed in Vermont until at least Wednesday.

Whether Phillip J. Jordan is then returned to face charges in Massachusetts depends on how he answers two questions that will be put to him in Franklin District Court not far from the Canadian border, as officials navigate concerns about his mental status.

Can Jordan confirm his identity? Is he able to state that he was in Pittsfield at the time of the alleged Sept. 22 offenses?

The step is required to allow his extradition to Massachusetts to move ahead, because of concerns about whether he is able to grasp his legal rights. Vermont law only provides for a court-ordered mental competency evaluation, which his attorney requested last week, for criminal defendants.

At a hearing Tuesday, both prosecution and defense explained to Judge A. Gregory Rainville that they need a new way to resolve the impasse — and came up with the two-question test.

Jordan, 58, is being held on a civil fugitive from justice charge related to four fires in Pittsfield, including one that gutted his 112 Appleton Ave. home. No one was injured in the blazes.

Jordan's court-appointed attorney said at a status hearing Tuesday that if he is unable to respond to those questions, he will remain jailed.

"Then the process will take longer," attorney Rosanna Chase said.

Jordan is being held on $25,000 bail at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in Swanton, Vt. He was arrested Sept. 23 by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at the Highgate Springs Port of Entry, after reportedly fleeing up Interstate 89 when he was approached by U.S. Border Patrol agents and was said to be speaking incoherently.

Police response

Meantime, Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn said in an interview this week that though an officer conducted a well-being check at Jordan's home two days before the fires, the department did not have sufficient grounds to refer him to the local crisis team that assesses whether an individual needs to be involuntarily committed for mental health observation.

That team, based at Berkshire Medical Center and run in coordination with the Brien Center, needs evidence that a person poses an imminent physical threat to himself or herself, or to others.

"We really need some outright statements," said Lt. Gary Traversa.

Recent police calls to Jordan's home included responses to neighborhood noise complaints.

Family members and friends say Jordan was in a mental health crisis. Efforts were underway to get him help just days before the fires.

Wynn said Jordan's mental health issues had not loomed large on his department's radar. "We didn't have a ton of history with him going back," Wynn said of Jordan. "When it comes to mental illness, it's challenging, whether or not there is a criminal violation."

Quade Rocke, Jordan's son, has questioned whether Wynn's department did all it could to help. The chief said this week he did not have any direct, official contact with Rocke about Jordan's condition.

Former tenant

Sharon Ulrich, a former tenant at Jordan's Appleton Avenue home, said this week she was shocked to learn he is believed to have intentionally set fires not only at his home but at three other addresses in Pittsfield.

She described Jordan, who she has known since high school, as generous. He let her stay at his home at times for free. Jordan took in lodgers and operated a sort of boarding house that helped him make ends meet.

When Ulrich last saw Jordan two months ago, he was different, she noticed. "He just seemed a little off, a little down," she said. "Something had to have happened."

"I very seldom even saw him get angry," Ulrich said. "He always put his kids first. And put his friends first. He was so kind to everyone, every person he saw."

At the time she stayed at the Appleton Avenue home, Ulrich had been facing homelessness.

"Whenever I was down and out, he was supportive," she said. "He's a loner for the most part, but he's everyone's best friend when they need it. He didn't have that much, but he gave everything he had to other people."

When he is returned to Massachusetts, Jordan is expected to be charged with three counts of burning a dwelling, despite the fact that the Pittsfield Fire Department responded to four fires.

The initial arrest warrant for Jordan produced under time pressure by Pittsfield police identified three instances of suspected arson. Authorities have said other charges are possible.

The other fires were reported Sept. 22 at 47 Fort Hill Ave., off West Street; at 42-22 Brown St. in the city's Morningside section; and at 85 Ridge Ave., near Pontoosuc Lake.