Berks man accused of setting Pottstown motel on fire has pleaded not guilty and is headed to trial

NORRISTOWN — Weeks after he pleaded guilty to setting fire to a Pottstown motel, a Berks County man has pleaded not guilty and is now headed to trial.

Montgomery County Circuit Judge Thomas M. DelRicci this week granted a motion filed by Russell Hess III, 50, of Mountain View, Hamburg, to withdraw his guilty plea to the arson charge. The judge said Hess would be listed for a future trial.

Hess is awaiting trial on charges of arson endangering death or bodily harm, arson endangering property, aggravated arson, risk of catastrophe, disorderly conduct, reckless arson, disorderly conduct and recklessly endangering others in connection with an alleged September 2021 hotel room fire America’s Best Value Inn on East High Street in Pottstown.

Hess, who remains in the county jail awaiting trial, could face more than ten years in prison if convicted on all counts.

On August 1, Hess pleaded guilty to a charge of arson – endangering death or bodily harm. However, on August 11, he entered a motion to withdraw his guilty plea, which was granted by a judge this week.

Assistant District Attorney Robert Joseph Waltz Jr. is prosecuting the case. Attorney Michael N. Huff is representing Hess.

The investigation began around 3:53 p.m. on September 25, 2021, when Pottstown Police were dispatched to a motel at 29 E. High St. for a report of a fire. Witnesses reported that the person who may have started the fire was at the scene and may have been under the influence of drugs, according to a criminal complaint filed by Pottstown Police Corporal Christopher Zagorczak.

Arriving officers noticed a room on the northeast corner of the motel “was fully engulfed in flames” and bystanders were yelling and pointing at the man, saying “Stop him,” according to the criminal complaint.

Police watched the man, later identified as Hess, walk down the second-floor walkway and appeared to be “very angry and acting up,” Zagorczak said, adding that authorities suspect Hess was under the influence of a controlled substance.

When police asked Hess how the fire started, he allegedly stated, “I set my bed on fire,” according to court documents.

Witnesses told police that about two hours before the fire, they watched Hess “freaking out over the roaches in the hotel room.”

One witness said she later heard glass shattering and noticed the window in the room was broken and heard Hess yell, “Have I got everyone’s attention now?” according to court filings. A witness then noticed smoke coming from the room and witnessed Hess shouting: “I hope everybody dies in that place.”

Pottstown Fire officials determined that the fire did start on a bed in the room associated with Hess.

Investigators obtained surveillance footage from the motel that showed Hess’ actions before and during the fire.

“At the time of the fire, there were about 40 people in the hotel, all of them were in danger of fire,” wrote Zagorchak in the criminal case.

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