SNOW HILL – Pre-trial posturing began late last week in the case against the Ocean City man charged with setting the fire that destroyed the Dough Roller restaurant and severely damaged the adjacent Marty’s Playland back in March with the defendant pleading not guilty to all of the charges and the prosecution dropping one of the first-degree arson charges against him.
Last Tuesday, a Worcester County grand jury formally indicted Gregory W. Wallace Kern, 48, of Ocean City, on two counts of first-degree arson for allegedly setting the fire that destroyed the apartments over the two businesses, and two counts of second-degree arson for the businesses themselves. Kern, who was an employee of the Dough Roller at the time, was also charged with one count of reckless endangerment for placing the 16 residents of the various apartments on the site at risk of injury or death.
Last Thursday, a hearing was held in Circuit Court in Snow Hill during which some early legal maneuvers took place. Circuit Court Judge Tom Groton presided over the hearing with prosecutor Julie Guyer on hand for the state and a public defender representing Kern, who was not present. Kern is being held on a $50,000 bond.
During the proceeding, Kern’s attorney officially entered a plea of not guilty to all of the charges and requested a speedy trial by jury in what amounts to a routine measure by the defense. In the only other significant measure during the hearing, prosecutors dropped one of the first-degree arson charges against Kern.
The state asked the judge to dismiss, or nolle prosse, count 3, which charged Kern with first-degree arson for “maliciously and willfully setting fire to and burning the Marty’s Playland Apartments” on Worcester Street and the motion was granted by Groton. It remains uncertain why the prosecution asked the judge to drop the first-degree arson charge for the Marty’s Playland apartment fire.
The case against Kern has not been set in for trial. There was an initial appearance arraignment scheduled for Aug. 27, but that court date has been canceled. Otherwise, little has been made public about how investigators connected Kern to the fire and how or why he allegedly set the fire. The state’s attorney’s office last week reported Kern was an employee of the Dough Roller, but did not indicate how long he worked for the company or in what capacity.
What turned out to be a nine-alarm fire was first reported shortly after noon on Sunday, March 30 and quickly filled the entire downtown area with thick, billowing smoke. OCPD officers first responded to the scene at 12:04 p.m. for a reported fight in progress. When the officers arrived, they observed the initial smoke and flames that would ultimately destroy the Dough Roller and the neighboring T-shirt shop, Sunshine Beachwear, and damage historic Marty’s Playland.
Ocean City Fire Services were the first to arrive to the blaze that quickly spread to become a nine-alarm fire. Over the course of the next two-plus hours, 22 fire companies joined the Ocean City crews, bringing in 38 fire engines and 15 trucks to battle the blaze. Fire companies from Worcester and Wicomico Counties in Maryland and Sussex County in Delaware joined the local effort and were able to bring the fire under control by about 2:25 p.m.
The maximum penalty for the remaining count of first-degree arson is 30 years in jail and a $50,000 fine. The maximum penalty for each count of second-degree assault is 20 years and a $30,000 fine. In addition, the maximum penalty for reckless endangerment is five years and/or a $5,000 fine. Already, the witness list for the case includes the names of the 16 residents of the various apartments that were destroyed in the fire.