BLAIR COUNTY, Pa. (WTAJ) — Details have been released after a lengthy investigation into an Altoona woman accused of purposefully setting fires, one of which led to the death of a man.
Police were called to the 100 block of E 5th Avenue in Altoona for a house fire on Feb. 15, 2022, around 6:24 p.m. When they arrived, three witnesses were standing on the road and explained that 75-year-old Mark Stewart, the homeowner, was unaccounted for, as well as two dogs. Police noted that the black smoke engulfing the home was so thick that they could not enter.
As the Altoona Fire Department worked to contain the fire, an officer spoke with one of the witnesses who said he was on the second floor when he noticed smoke seeping into his room through the cracks of his door, according to the police report. He was able to escape out of his window onto the porch roof. He also told officers that his mother, 43-year-old Heather Evans, of Altoona, was at the home about 20 minutes before the fire started, and he had seen Stewart in Stewart’s bedroom roughly 10 minutes before the fire started.
Strangely, police said no one on scene of the fire was able to provide a number for Evans. Investigators had to contact her ex-husband in order to receive her number.
While on the phone with Evans around 6:56 p.m., she told police she left the home around 6 p.m., and she last saw Stewart in the kitchen while her son was upstairs, police wrote in their report. Evans claimed she had no knowledge of the fire even though her ex-husband had already told police she had contacted him about the fire.
Multiple firefighters were injured while working to save the home, but they were ultimately able to extinguish the blaze and rescue two dogs.
Around 7:15 p.m., police said Stewart’s body was found facedown by his bedroom window. This is the same window an officer noted heavy smoke was billowing out of — meaning Stewart appeared to have opened the window and attempted to rescue himself. An autopsy later showed that there were no signs of trauma to his body. Instead, they found soot in his nose/mouth and throat as well as 1st and 2nd degree burns on over half of his body. His cause of death was listed as smoke inhalation.
With the help of Pennsylvania State Police, officials found that the fire began at the base of the stairwell.
The next day around 12:47 p.m., Altoona police were dispatched to another fire. This time, there was a report of a chicken coop on fire at the 300 block of 11th Street. Witnesses told police that Evans’ ex-husband was staying at home near where the chicken coop is located, and they saw her standing on the front porch that morning looking toward the chicken coop.
Police were told Evans said something along the lines of, “There’s no chickens in there. It shouldn’t be there. That chicken coop has to go,” according to charges filed.
Evans allegedly left shortly before the chicken coop fire started.
A neighbor’s Ring Doorbell camera caught a glimpse of what police reported as a “figure” that matched the description of Evans as provided by the witness during the same time frame.
The chicken coop appeared to have been ignited in the front right corner next to a ceramic pot that contained glass, cloth and fire debris — which inspectors said was likely the source of the fire. Police also reported finding a note with a pentagram drawing that said, “depart from me and my loved one ye cursed into everlasting fire.”
Based on the fact Evans was leaving prior to two fires within two days, police began digging deeper to find answers on the house fire. State police gathered wood from different areas of the home as evidence, including from the base of the steps on the east side of the home, the top of the steps/staircase, the door at the base of the steps on the first floor as well as from the west side of the living room. They also took some carpet from the living room.
The wood at the base of the stairs appeared to have a heavy petroleum distillate. This could mean kerosene, diesel fuel and some brands of charcoal starters. There was a kerosene heater in the home, though it was in the basement, away from the fire’s origin. Investigators quickly realized this fire was intentionally started.
In follow-up interviews with Evans’ son, he told police his mother performed witchcraft and had an interest in fire. He also said that Evans and Stewart didn’t get along, and she was upset when she left the night of the fire. He also said Evans had destroyed Stewart’s property in the past by placing hieroglyphic symbols on the walls, leading him to believe Evans was responsible for setting the fire.
According to her son, this isn’t the first time she set a structure ablaze, either. Evans allegedly set fire to a house/shed in West Virginia, which led her to a mental health evaluation.
On Feb. 20, 2022, around 2:18 p.m., a 911 caller claimed Evans was pouring vegetable oil in the hallway of his home along the 100 block of E Crawford Avenue in an attempt to start a fire. When police arrived, they said they found Evans outside a wishing well that she was using as a fire pit with smoke showing. She told officers that she was burning Sage because she “misses Jesus,” according to charges filed. She was also found with two lighters and a zip-lock baggie filled with dried leaves.
Evans denied all allegations that she started the fire that led to Stewart’s death, police noted. Instead, she placed the blame on her son. She claimed she was only at Stewart’s house from 5:30 to 5:45 p.m. the day of the fire. However, police said she changed the time frame multiple times during the conversation. As for the chicken coop fire, she alleged she was visiting a nearby home at the 300 block of 11th Street, but it was before the fire happened, according to the criminal complaint.
Yet another fire was reported to Altoona police, this time at a detached garage at the 400 block of Crawford Avene on March 3, 2022, around 6:29 a.m. First responders found that the fire was started inside the garage in two areas, one from clothing and the second from cardboard/Styrofoam and Christmas decorations. They also found an out-of-place piece of wood, which police noted had “strange white handwriting on it and appeared to be consistent with the note located at the chicken coop fire.”
In November 2022, investigators served a search warrant on Evans’ phone. In text messages between her and her ex-husband at 6:28 p.m., police noted she told him Stewart’s house was on fire. According to Blair County 911 Center, that text was sent four minutes after the 911 call was placed. However, only three people were on the scene of the fire when police arrived at 6:26 p.m., and there was no record in Evans’ phone that she made contact with any of the witnesses.
As previously stated, when Evans was contacted by an officer at 6:56 p.m. the night of the fire, she claimed she knew nothing about a fire.
Investigators filed for two more search warrants, one for her Google location history and one for her Facebook profile.
According to the Google location history, Evans was at or in close proximity of the house from 3:27 p.m. until she “fled the scene,” police noted. This contradicts her statements of only being at the house for a short period of time. At 6:21 p.m., when the fire likely would have been active, she appeared to have been near the home. Again, police noted the 911 call was placed by one of the witnesses at 6:24 p.m. At the time police called her, at 6:56 p.m., she was in the area of St Marys Cemetary.
Next, police took a look at her Facebook. At 6:15 p.m., she messaged one of the three witnesses to the house fire, “Bye hunny be safe.” The witness tried to call Evans around 6:23 p.m., though she didn’t answer.
Evans was also messaging her son back and forth on Facebook during the day of the fire. The conversation stopped around 4:25 p.m., and her son reached back out to her at 10:29 p.m. to let her know he would be staying at a friend’s house.
At 9:51 p.m., Evans had called the third witness via Facebook, and then the two messaged about hanging out. Thus, Evans was not in contact with this witness until after the fire.
At this point in the investigation, police reported she had contradicted her statements about not knowing about the fire along with her location at the time of the fire. She also had first-hand knowledge of the fire and was on scene until the time her son would have escaped the fire, which is when police believe she fled the area.
On Dec. 8, 2022, investigators asked Evans for a new statement about what really happened the night of the fire, and they mentioned to her that in her first interview, she appeared to be under the influence of methamphetamine.
Police reported that Evans admitted she had been using meth at the time of the fire and was an active addict at the time, and she also said she suffered from hallucinations and believed bugs were crawling on her. Furthermore, she explained that she hallucinated into believing that she was the Egyptian Goddess Isis. Evans also told police that she was homeless during the month of February 2022.
When asked about the house fire, police said she gave very few details and that she was walking all day and only went to Stewart’s house to change her boots for sneakers. She also claimed it was still daylight out when she left the house, though based on location data, investigators said she was not being truthful.
Once more, Evans alleged she didn’t know about the fire until police called her at 6:56 p.m., at which time she claimed to be in the area of Prospect Park. However, her location data showed her at the cemetery during the call, which is two blocks away from where Evans claimed to be.
When asked about the message she sent to her ex-husband about Stewart’s home being on fire, she told police that she didn’t send that until after police called her. This marks another false statement, according to investigators.
Any time Evans was asked about a crucial question in the fire, she would tell investigators that she couldn’t remember. When asked if she caused the fire, she said, “Not that I know of. I wouldn’t do anything like that,” police noted. The only aspect of a fire that she claimed she recalled was lighting a candle.
When Evans talked about unrelated incidents that occurred within weeks of the fire, investigators said she had no trouble remembering details.
As for the chicken coop fire and the garage fire, Evans allegedly confirmed that the notes photographed from both fires were her writing, though she could not explain how they wound up at both fire scenes. She also confirmed that the pentagram design on the note at the chicken coop fire was hers and explained it was part of her being a white witch and that she frequently drew pentagrams. On the note left at the garage fire, which read “mm ka Ba Shut Khet Seket,” Evans said that was Egyptian and was to “help people transfer over to the afterlife,” police noted in the criminal complaint.
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Based on all evidence gathered by investigators, they determined Evans was responsible for starting the house fire at the base of the stairwell using some kind of accelerant, trapping Stewart and her son on the second floor, making no attempt to warn them of the fire, didn’t contact 911, and left both to perish in the fire. Investigators also determined that she remained in close proximity to the fire until her son escaped from the second-floor window. All alibis she tried to give investigators and her close family were untrue, according to police.
Evans was also determined to be at the scene of the chicken coop fire and garage fire based on her statements about identifying the notes she left behind.
She was denied bail after being arraigned on charges including murder of the second degree, murder of the third degree, aggravated arson, aggravated assault, burglary, and causing catastrophe, among many others.
Her preliminary hearing is scheduled for Feb. 22 before Magisterial District Judge Daniel DeAntonio.