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
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
Assistant District Attorney
Essex County District Attorney's Office
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
Massachusetts General Law
Chapter 266, Section 2, Arson
Chapter 266, Section 10, Arson to Defraud
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
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
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
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
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.