John Corcoran has always been fascinated with civil service. As a kid, he would stop by his local police station so frequently bemused officers nicknamed him “Little Johnny.” As an adult, before he was found out, he volunteered as a firefighter.
Then, at 20, Corcoran was found out. He has been charged with 161 counts of sexual assault for allegedly coercing more than a dozen children to engage in lewd acts with him. According to investigators, some of the crimes occurred as recently as December while Corcoran was out on bail for a separate case. He had been charged with arson—suspected of starting some of the fires he volunteered to fight.
Corcoran is from Glenolden, Pennsylvania, part of Darby Township, a cluster of nine blue-collar boroughs southwest of Philadelphia. Despite its location just 15 minutes from one of the largest cosmopolitan areas on the East Coast, the township’s population has declined steadily since the 1980s.
The Corcoran family’s North Ridgeway Avenue home sits in the shadow of high-voltage electrical lines that power the commuter trains that run behind the house. No one answered the door Sunday afternoon and area residents said they have not seen anyone come or go from the house since charges were announced on Friday. Neighbors couldn't recall ever seeing any activity in or around the house that would suggest children were being abused there.
While most were willing to talk candidly about Corcoran's charges, all declined to speak on the record about the family.
One neighbor, who lived near the Corcorans for nine years, said the accused shared the house with his parents and an 18-year-old sister. She recalled a second sister, in her early twenties, who lives elsewhere.
Another long-time neighbor—who described her 17-year-old son as a friend of Corcoran's—explained that Corcoran's parents separated and his mother moved out sometime in 2011, leaving the children in the sole custody of their father. The mother returned to the house about two years later, she said.
“They're quiet people. I've been here 12 years and don't think I've ever spoken to his mother,” the neighbor said. “The kids were always hanging around out front. Their father works a lot and I get the sense the kids were left unsupervised a lot. It's sad.”
She described Corcoran as “awkward, but very smart." She remembered him starting his own successful landscaping business while still in high school. He'd frequently give neighborhood kids lifts up and down the street on his riding mower, she said.
“I always felt a little sorry for him,” she said. “He's a passive kid. I don't think he'll survive in prison.”
Prosecutors describe Corcoran as a calculating serial predator who carefully “lured and groomed” his victims to feed his own perverse desires. According to a criminal complaint provided by the District Attorney's office, Corcoran had been sexually exploiting an expanding group of underage victims since at least 2012. The charges—which were laid out by the Delaware County District Attorney on Friday—include three counts of rape of a child, seven counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a child, and multiple child pornography charges.
Most of the victims named in the complaint are boys, but Corcoran also allegedly coaxed several underage girls to pose nude for him with the intention of using the images to entice his male victims.
The majority of the crimes allegedly occurred inside his parent's house, where victims say he used toys, money and porn to entice boys, sometimes in groups, to strip naked, and engage in sex acts. Two of the victims told detectives they were also anally penetrated. A sizable portion of the activity was photographed or filmed, police say.
On several occasions, it is alleged the abuse began in a pool in Corcoran's backyard, an area clearly visible from a highly trafficked overpass nearby. Prosecutors say Corcoran also abused children in the showers at a local YMCA and at a historical park in a neighboring town known as the Swedish Cabin. Young witnesses there described dancing naked around a bonfire.
A total of 14 victims ranging in age from eight to 18 are identified in police documents. Delaware County District Attorney Jack Whelan said that it is likely there are more victims who have yet to come forward.
Corcoran’s double life began to unravel at the end of the summer when he was arrested on suspicion of lighting several fires in vacant houses in towns serviced by the fire company where he volunteered. On two occasions, Corcoran joined first responders to help fight the fires that police say he later admitted to starting himself with the help of a juvenile accomplice.
He was out on bail awaiting trial for arson in early November when investigators were tipped off to the sexual abuse allegations. In a detailed affidavit supporting Corcoran's arrest, detectives describe how the concerned mother of one of his alleged victims alerted authorities that he had been providing her son with hardcore pornography.
Under questioning, the boy, now 12, admitted to police that Corcoran had been abusing him for two years. It was his testimony that led to the other victims.
On December 12th 2014, police executed a search warrant of Corcoran's parent's house, seizing computers and cellphones. A police forensics team discovered sexually explicit files on a Blackberry smartphone recovered from Corcoran’s room. A total of 54 videos and images depicting minors were retrieved. He was arrested on child pornography charges the next day.
Corcoran remains in custody on $500,000 bail. First, he's scheduled to appear in court on February 25 to face the arson charges. A preliminary hearing on the sex abuse charges is likely to be held the same day, a spokesperson for the DA's office said. His attorney didn't respond to a request for comment.
In the wake of Friday's charges, speculation has revolved around Corcoran's mental state, including the possibility that he, himself, had been sexually abused as a child—a piece of hearsay that is gaining traction among neighbors and on social media. The FBI has identified a number of traits common to firefighter-arsonists that track closely with Corcoran's background—parental aloofness, above average intelligence, and low social integration.
A forensic psychologist contacted by The Daily Beast said firefighters who start fires are often narcissists seeking attention or praise, but added that misdirected anger can also be a strong motivator.
“Starting fires is a way to express rage for people who—either because of rigidity or some other limitation—don't have a way to appropriately express anger,” said Dr. Joel Dvoskin, of the University of Arizona.
But while researchers have also identified sexual pathology as a motivating factor in some serial arsons, Dvoskin said he has never heard of a case where serial arson and pedophilia were present simultaneously.
“If, in fact, a person were guilty of both of those things," he said, "it would signal something serious wrong with them."