5 cases of arson gone bad

Bedeviled by sagging bank accounts and burdensome mortgages, some cash-strapped building owners try to burn their way out of debt. Lighting up spilled gasoline or interior gas lines seems like an easy answer. One flick of a match and the problem is solved.

Except that these are amateur arsonists and screw-ups. Natural gas and gasoline are volatile. When lit, they can ignite with more force than TNT. Instead of obediently burning down, buildings can explode with unforeseen impact.

The blast can kill the arsonists and wreck neighboring homes and businesses. Fire fighters and bystanders can be seriously injured.

Data on insurance arsons of buildings is in short supply, but anecdotally they remain a persistent crime regardless of the economy. Intentional residential fires in general, however, steadily hovered around 20,000 from 2003 to 2012. That’s the latest year for which federal data is available. Surprisingly, home arsons dipped slightly during the economy’s meltdown of 2007 to 2010. More than 300 people died from home arsons in 2012.

The numbers don’t distinguish between insurance and non-insurance causes. Intentional home blazes are a small percentage of overall home fires annually. Behind the data, however, are compelling and often tragic insurance cases of accelerant-fueled greed, financial failure and desperation — and ditzy screw-ups. Here are five cases of arson gone bad.

Third time’s the charm

Monseratte Shirley was dogged by mounting credit card and gambling debt. She ignited a gas line inside her Indianapolis home. The place blew up. Next-door neighbors Jennifer and Dion Longworth died, and seven others were injured. More than 80 homes were damaged and at least 30 are being demolished because they are beyond repair.

Shirley had hiked the coverage on her Indianapolis home by $300,000 and tried three times to burn down the place. Her arson crew first blocked the chimney vent and altered the thermostat so it would click, emitting a spark and setting the home ablaze. Nothing happened, so they tried again. No go.

They tried a third time. Shirley boarded her cat and found a place for her daughter to stay that night. She and her accused cohorts gambled at a casino to create an alibi.

The crew had opened up the gas line and filled the home with volatile fumes. They also rigged the microwave with a timer to emit a spark that ignited the gas brew. This time they succeeded, causing the massive explosion.

Shirley pleaded guilty in late January 2015. She avoided a life sentence in prison by agreeing to testify against her cronies and could serve up to 20 years in state prison when sentenced.

The gas was a blast

Alexandros Yfantidis was a Greek immigrant who owned a failing laundry firm specializing in bed and table linens for restaurants, hospitals and nursing homes.

He filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and decided to unload the building in Macomb County, Michigan, with a match. Someone opened a two-inch gas line inside the building, lit a candle and left it burning in the path of the escaping gas.

The building blew up, damaging at least 21 nearby homes and 28 businesses. People felt the blast for miles around. Several passersby were injured, and some businesses were so badly damaged that they never reopened.

Yfantidis then made a false insurance claim with Farmers Insurance. He pleaded guilty in February 2015 and could spend up to 20 years in federal prison when sentenced in June.

Fire fighters injured

Detroit firefighter Brian Baulch didn’t remember the bricks raining down on him as he fought the inferno inside a blazing two-story office building. He was knocked unconscious when the hail of debris broke his nose, both of his feet, six ribs, his pelvis and six vertebrae.

Fellow firefighter Brendan Milewski was permanently paralyzed. They were among seven firefighters trapped and injured in a fire that blew out of control after being set by Calvin Jones and a crony to steal insurance money. The duo spewed gasoline into the structure through a hole in a brick wall they’d created earlier in the day, then lit the mix.

Some firefighters required months of healing and rehab before they could return to work, and several will never work again.

Jones showed little remorse, and insisted he didn’t get a fair trial. He received 15 years in prison.

Fire consumes handyman

Victor and Olga Barriere wanted to burn down their rickety home for the insurance money. The rundown, 600-square-foot structure in Long Beach, California, had numerous code violations requiring expensive repairs.

The Barrieres also were stuck with a $315,000 mortgage and a decaying home no one wanted to buy. Fed up, they hired handyman Thomas Trucios to barbecue the place.

Trucios sloshed dangerously large amounts of gasoline inside. The fumes built to a critical mass and exploded when he lit the match. The blast jolted neighbors awake for several blocks. Large cracks were carved into the sidewalk and walls of the home. All of the home’s windows were shattered.

The fireball seared Trucios, causing third-degree burns over 95 percent of his body. He staggered outside and somehow called his wife on his cell phone. Trucios even tried to drive home. His daughter heard him screaming into the phone and his family rushed to the scene and packed him off to the hospital. Trucios died shortly afterward. Victor is lying low with a 14-year state jail term. Olga received six years.

Millionaire turned arsonist

Millionaire Jim Kurtenbach fell on hard times. He owed $50,000 in property taxes and couldn’t sell the luxurious home in a posh Ramona, California, neighborhood. He was also paying for another expensive house he’d just bought.

Kurtenbach hiked his homeowner’s insurance from $680,000 to $900,000, then hired an employee at his gas station to help finish off the place. Kurtenbach and Joe Nesheiwat splashed 70 gallons of gasoline around the house and then Kurtenbach sent him back to light the fire several days later.

The house blew up with the explosive power of 1,500 sticks of dynamite. The garage door shot 100 feet into the street. The roof collapsed, and window frames and glass blew into the yard.

The violent fireball reached 15,000 degrees and tossed Nesheiwat from the back door across the back patio. He landed on his knees with enough force to cause extreme trauma. He received second- and third-degree burns over 85 percent of his body. The only clothes remaining on his body were the ring collar of his t-shirt, his socks and one charred tennis shoe.

The home was destroyed and a neighboring residence sustained $120,000 worth of damage. Two lives also were impacted. Nesheiwat died, and Kurtenbach received the maximum 15 years and eight months in state prison.

“Our whole family is not the same,” Nesheiwat’s mother, Terry Sellers, told the court. “It will never be the same.”

Fraudsters often think they are smarter and cleverer than insurance and fire investigators. Frequently they are not, and they pay a very high price for their folly.

Mar 31, 2015 | By James Quiggle

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