Prosecutors say Jeannette man confessed to setting fatal fire during calls from jail

Mar. 16—Westmoreland prosecutors said a Jeannette man accused of setting a fire in 2018 that killed an elderly woman confessed his guilt in telephone calls he made from the county jail.

Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Ranger told a judge Wednesday that prosecutors this week obtained 400 calls made by Brian Rendon over the last five years to family members and friends. They believe some contain key evidence they plan to introduce to jurors during the homicide and arson trial that is scheduled to begin next week.

Rendon, 38, is accused of setting the April 9, 2018, fire that destroyed a six-unit row house on South Seventh Street. Shirley Kocherans, 87, was killed and other tenants were injured and left homeless as a result of the fire, police said.

Rendon is also charged with torching his Jeannette home two days before the row house fire.

Ranger said she has so far reviewed about 75 jail calls and found several that prosecutors contend support the homicide and arson allegations.

"Some contain very relevant information, and we would intend to use them at trial. There are some confessions made on those calls," Ranger said.

Westmoreland County Common Pleas Court Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio last November barred prosecutors from introducing evidence that Rendon confessed to police he set the fires. The judge ruled Rendon's low intelligence prevented him from being capable of waiving his right to not speak with police.

Defense attorneys on Wednesday said Rendon's calls from jail should be excluded from evidence. They argued prosecutors waited too long to obtain those records. With the trial set to start next week, the defense says it doesn't have enough time to sift through the recordings to properly challenge their admissibility.

"They had five years to get his evidence. And because their evidence (of confessions) was suppressed, they searched for more evidence," said Assistant Public Defender Jennifer DeFlitch. "This is an attempt to delay or force him to take a plea."

Rendon has maintained his innocence and defense lawyers said they do not believe the jail calls include confessions.

The judge ordered prosecutors to submit to her a list of calls they want to use as evidence and scheduled another hearing Thursday afternoon.

Jury selection in the trial is scheduled to begin Monday.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich by email at or via Twitter .