The 20-year-old daughter of a former volunteer fire chief was sentenced Monday to 7.5 months to 23 months in jail for conspiring to set brush fires and a barn fire in South Whitehall and other areas.
Nicolle Balliet, of Allentown, also was ordered by Lehigh County Judge Robert Steinberg to pay $1,045 in restitution to South Whitehall and an insurance company, and to perform 100 hours of community service.
Balliet, standing before the judge with her parents at her side, apologized for her role. "I really do apologize," she said. "I made a bad decision. I never meant to hurt anybody."
Sentencing was continued to Oct. 22 for a co-defendant, Cory Praschyk, 21, of Hanover Township (Northampton County) after Steinberg said he would reject a negotiated plea agreement that called for 7.5 months in jail as a minimum for him too, based on the pre-sentence report findings. Steinberg called Praschyk a firefighter "wannabe" who allegedly deceived area volunteer fire departments.
In imposing the sentence on Balliet, Steinberg said, "This is an extremely serious case." Though no one was hurt and the damage was minimal, he said, the fires could have spread much farther -- and the community put in jeopardy -- under different environmental conditions.
"This isn't just somebody playing with matches," he said, adding the fires were intentionally set.
Steinberg wanted to know Balliet's motivation in conspiring to set the fires. However, Balliet did not offer much in explanation other than to say that she was trying to make Praschyk happy. Steinberg said the two were not romantically involved.
"The questions you are asking, I've asked her a million times," Balliet's mother, Cathy, told the judge. She said her daughter is "a loving person" who made terrible decisions and got involved with someone she shouldn't have.
Balliet's father, Jim Balliet, former fire chief, told the judge he was "very hurt" by his daughter's actions and did not have insight into her motivations.
Praschyk and Balliet had been and charged with using a fireplace lighter and emergency flares to set or attempt to set fires in South Whitehall, Upper Macungie and North Whitehall. in Lehigh County Court in August in negotiated plea deals, and additional charges were withdrawn.
Steinberg called the crime "reprehensible." He said every day firefighters put their lives at risk for the community. As part of the sentencing, which included 24 months' probation to follow the jail term, Steinberg instructed that Balliet be enrolled, if possible, in a program to learn the impact of arson on a community.
At the time of the arrest, police in South Whitehall said they had responded to several brush fires in early April in the area of Minnich Road, Albright Avenue, Focht Avenue and Cedar Crest Boulevard.
An officer detained Praschyk and Balliet after one incident because he had seen the same blue vehicle in which they were riding at brush fires over two days.
In a criminal complaint filed in the case, Praschyk and Balliet had admitted to attempting to set a barn on fire in Upper Macungie by propelling a flare into the barn's second-floor storage area.
The two also had faced charges of criminal mischief for in South Whitehall and the surrounding areas.