U.S. Attorney Romero Announces Arson Charges Against Philadelphia Man for Pizza Shop Fire That Resulted in Death of Firefighter

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FILE PHOTO: Signage is seen at the United States Department of Justice headquarters in Washington, D.C.

PHILADELPHIA – United States Attorney Jacqueline C. Romero announced that Al-Ashraf Basem Khalil, 28, of Philadelphia, PA, was arrested on June 24, 2022, after being charged by Criminal Complaint with arson on June 23, 2022.  During a news conference held today with officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the U.S. Marshals Service; and the Philadelphia Fire Department; First Assistant United States Attorney Nelson S. T. Thayer, Jr., detailed the charges outlined in the Complaint accusing the defendant of causing the arson at 300 W. Indiana Avenue in Philadelphia on June 18, 2022, which resulted in the death of Philadelphia Fire Lieutenant Sean Williamson. The announcement comes the day after funeral services were held for Lt. Williamson.

Specifically, the defendant has been charged with one count of malicious damage by means of fire of a building used in interstate commerce resulting in death, one count of aiding and abetting and willfully causing the same, and one count of making materially false or fraudulent statements. Khalil was arrested Friday afternoon at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, NY, by United States Marshals who thwarted Khalil’s efforts to leave the United States, getting as far as Jordan, until he was forced to return to face these charges. Khalil made his initial appearance before a United States Magistrate Judge in the Eastern District of New York, where he was detained and ordered transferred to the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

As detailed in the Complaint, voluminous video surveillance recovered by investigators showed two suspects – minutes before the fire began in the early morning hours of June 18 – walk behind a dumpster and enter the basement doors of the property at 300 W. Indiana Avenue. The video surveillance further shows the two suspects leave the location about twenty minutes later, shortly after which smoke can be observed that gradually grows thicker emanating from the area of building.

On June 20, 2022, ATF agents interviewed the defendant, the owner of the property, as part of their federal investigation into the origin and cause of the fire. The Complaint alleges that Khalil provided false information about where he was at the time he learned of the fire, and that he stated that he had no plans to travel outside the U.S. in the next year. While he was being interviewed, agents noted that some of the defendant’s clothing appeared to be similar to one of the two suspects captured on the video surveillance footage.

Further, the following day on June 21, 2022, Khalil again met with investigators at their request, and later that day booked a flight from JFK airport to Amman, Jordan with a layover in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. On June 22, 2022, the defendant left the United States on that flight.

“Whenever there is a fire in our city, the brave men and women of the Philadelphia Fire Department put their lives on the line to protect us. Intentionally causing a fire and deliberately putting firefighters and innocent victims in harm’s way is truly unconscionable,” said U.S. Attorney Romero. “We are grateful to all of the investigators on this case who moved rapidly to determine the origins of the fire, identify a suspect, and return him to U.S. soil so he can answer these charges before the court. And while we mourn the loss of Lt. Williamson, we are grateful for his life and his service to our city, and hope that by seeking justice in this case we honor his memory.”

“ATF is dedicated to investigating and preventing violent crime,” said Matthew Varisco, Special Agent in Charge of ATF’s Philadelphia Field Division. “Arson, just like gun crime, can have serious consequences and as alleged in this case, caused the death of a beloved public servant. Our team of investigators and dedicated prosecutors will continue to seek justice for the victims of these violent acts.”

“The phenomenal effort between U.S. law enforcement agencies and our international partners in quickly capturing this fugitive while attempting to flee to the Middle East demonstrates our global reach and unwavering commitment to justice,” said U.S. Marshal Eric Gartner. “Our hope is that this rapid capture will provide some measure of comfort to the family of Lt. Sean Williamson and the Philadelphia Fire Department.”

“We respond to more than 3,500 structure fires annually, and the majority are unintentional. However, intentional fires are still a problem: last year, more than 650 incendiary incidents were investigated by our Fire Marshal’s Office in close partnership with the Philadelphia Police Department and ATF,” said Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam K. Thiel. “This incident demonstrates the tragic consequences of arson. Our thoughts remain with Lt. Williamson’s family, friends and PFD colleagues as this case moves forward and justice is served.”

If convicted, the defendant faces a mandatory minimum term of seven years in prison if, as here, personal injury results to any person. If death results to any person, including a public safety officer performing duties, the statute carries a maximum penalty of life in prison or the death penalty.

The case was investigated by ATF Philadelphia and the ATF’s National Response Team, the Philadelphia Fire Department Fire Marshal’s Office, and the Philadelphia Police Department, with significant assistance provided by the Philadelphia Department of Licenses & Inspections, the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General, the Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Homeland Security Investigations, the Diplomatic Security Service in Amman, Jordan and Dubai, UAE, and INTERPOL Washington. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Jeanine Linehan and Sarah Damiani.

An Indictment, Information, or Criminal Complaint is an accusation. A defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.