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Arson Case Briefs

provided by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms
for more information on this Brief, contact:
ATF, Arson and Explosive Programs Division - (202) 927-7930


424 Summer Street
Lynn, Massachusetts
February 23, 1994


A. IN: 63210-94-0032 M

B. CASE AGENT: Angelo A. Thurman

C. FIELD DIVISION/OFFICE: Boston; Arson Group

D. PHONE: 617-565-7050

E. PROSECUTOR:

Dunbar Livingston
Assistant District Attorney
Essex County District Attorney's Office

F. SYNOPSIS:

On February 23, 1994, an arson fire occurred at a three-family apartment building in Lynn, Massachusetts. At the time of the arson, the building was unoccupied and was under renovation by the owner, William Luther. This fire occurred in broad daylight while Luther was inside the building. Luther himself set the fire and then feigned being a victim of an accidental explosion and fire.

G. CHARGES:

Massachusetts General Law

Chapter 266, Section 2, Arson
Chapter 266, Section 10, Arson to Defraud

H. EVIDENCE:

1. On March 9, 1990, William Luther purchased a three-family apartment building at 424 Summer Street, Lynn, Massachusetts, for $180,000. At about that time there was a real estate boom going on in the Boston area that was just about to end dramatically. Properties were being bought and sold at top dollar.

2. On February 26, 1992, Luther signed a contract with a realtor to list the property for sale. The property was originally listed for $149,900; after a year on the market the price was reduced to $129,900. In 1994, the price was further reduced to $79,900.

3. On April 1, 1993, over a year after the property was listed for sale, Luther obtained an insurance policy worth $158,000 in coverage.

4. On October 12, 1993, Luther received a $60,000 offer for the property. He accepted this offer, but the deal was not consummated because the buyer backed out.

5. In March 1993, because the building was unoccupied and in a bad neighborhood, Luther hired a security dog service to patrol his building. The cost of this service from March 1993 until the time of the fire in 1994 was approximately $11,000.

6. Just prior to February 23, 1994, the date of the fire, Luther asked the service to remove the dog from the building so that he could make repairs.

7. Luther later testified in court that he had requested removal of the dog because the guard service was not cleaning up after it.

8. Early the day of the fire, Luther and two other individuals were seen removing the wooden boards that covered the first floor windows of the building.

9. The physical evidence at the scene suggested that Luther went to the second and third floors, where he poured an accelerant from near the apartment entrances to the stairway. After spreading the accelerant on these floors, he went down to the basement and spread more accelerant. He then lit the fire on the second floor and in the basement. He fled upstairs to the first floor and entered the first floor apartment. He closed the door behind him to prevent the smoke, heat, and fire from entering the room he was in. Once he was in the safest part of the building (the first floor apartment), he went to one of the windows facing the street (which was now open because he had removed the boards earlier in the day). He was soon "rescued" by a citizen prior to the fire department's arrival.

10. The person who assisted Luther stated that he saw smoke coming from second and third floors prior to seeing smoke coming from the basement.

11. When fire and police personnel arrived on the scene, Luther told them he had been working in the basement of the building when the fire started there.

12. The origin and cause investigation that was later conducted indicated that the fire had been intentionally set in three places--in the basement and on the second and third floors.

13. In the first 2 days of the investigation, Luther gave conflicting exculpatory statements about what had occurred. Right after the fire he stated that he did not know how it started, and that all he knew was that it had started in the basement while he was working there. The following day, he said that the fire started when the chainsaw he was operating exploded.

14. At trial, Luther testified in his own defense that he did not know how the fire started, and that all he knew was that while he was working a ball of fire came at him, forcing him to run up the stairs to the first floor. He claimed that he then banged his head and had a loss of memory as to what occurred after that. He also stated that when he talked to investigators he was not sure of what he was saying.

15. Luther and a financial expert, who testified on his behalf, told the jury that although he had purchased the building in 1990 for $180,000 and was willing to sell it for $60,000, this building (unoccupied for a year) was a good investment because he could use the loss for a tax write-off. Luther and his accountant expert also claimed that his net worth was approximately $750,000, and that he did not need to commit insurance fraud arson.

I. LEGAL ISSUES AND PROBLEMS:

Luther's financial expert also claimed to be an insurance expert. There was an attempt to confuse the jury regarding the meaning of the insurance terms "actual cash value" and "replacement value." Luther had a policy with limits of $158,000. He had just had an offer to buy the property at $60,000. According to his expert, the most Luther could get from the policy was $60,000 because that was the "fair market value" of the property. The prosecution had to bring in an insurance expert to explain to the jury that "actual cash value" means "replacement value" less depreciation; he said Luther stood to gain $152,000 and would also have ownership of the property itself.

The State used four of their origin and cause investigators to testify in this case. The defense countered with a private expert. The origin and cause was the central issue of this case. Because the fire was set in multiple unconnected and separate points, Luther's story was proven untrue. The jury had to decide which of the experts was more accurate.

The defense origin and cause expert has testified against the Government in two other ATF cases in the last year and is scheduled to testify against the prosecution in two more. In preparation for his testimony, transcripts of his previous testimonies were provided to the District Attorney. Additionally, an ATF CFI sat through his entire testimony and provided questions for cross examination.

To counter the defense's argument that Luther, with a net worth of $750,000, did not have to commit an arson fraud, the prosecutor began his opening argument by asking the jury, "Does the defense want us to believe that rich people don't steal?".

J. VERDICT AND SENTENCING:

The trial, which was expected to last 4 days, ended up lasting 10 full days. The jury was out approximately 4 hours before finding Luther guilty on all counts. He was sentenced to 1 year in prison.

 
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