Pennsylvania man sentenced to 12 years for setting Montgomery Co. house fire

A SUV, belonging to the woman whose house was set ablaze by John O’Donnell, was also damaged in the fire. O’Donnell had already smash its windows in his first visit to the home. (Courtesy Montgomery County Fire & EMS )

A Pennsylvania man received 12 years behind bars Monday for setting a Montgomery County, Maryland, house on fire last year.

Thirty-five-year-old John Joseph O’Donnell told police he was under a drug-induced psychosis the night he torched the house.

Prosecutors said O’Donnell never met the woman who lived in the 11000 block of Korman Drive in Potomac. But court records show he visited her house twice in Oct. 2020: The first time to smash the windows out of her SUV, and on the second visit, he set her house ablaze.

“The defendant’s actions put the life of an innocent woman at risk and displaced her from her home for 10 months,” said Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy. “We thank the judge for imposing a 12-year prison sentence in this matter.”

Just before 10:30 p.m. on Oct. 26, 2020, firefighters found the woman on the second floor, where she had run to get away from O’Donnell, who admitted breaking into her basement. She told police he was angry and yelling.

Prosecutors said a short time later, she smelled smoke.

O’Donnell told police he started fires in her basement, kitchen and living room by pouring gasoline in the house and lighting it. Minutes after setting the fire, he left the house.

While processing the scene, investigators discovered a five-gallon container and a white envelope on the property. The envelope had a warning notice from the Philadelphia Parking Authority addressed to O’Donnell and a picture of his white Dodge Durango.

Neighbors reported spotting the same vehicle outside the woman’s house minutes before they saw the flames and dialed 911. Police also had surveillance video of O’Donnell’s vehicle in the neighborhood that night.

Two days later, police visited his Bensalem, Pennsylvania, home and arrested him.

Court records show that during an interview with police, O’Donnell admitted traveling to the house twice. He told police he was “fed up with the head of the CIA, so he burned his house down.”

O’Donnell also told police that over the course of four to five months before the arson, he spent “$45,000 on bills and drugs.”

Gigi Barnett

Gigi Barnett is an anchor at WTOP. She has worked in the media for more than 20 years. Before joining WTOP, she was an anchor at WJZ-TV in Baltimore, KXAN-TV in Austin, Texas, and a staff reporter at The Miami Herald. She’s a Navy wife and mom of three.

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