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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


Howard Johnson Hotel
Bowling Green, OH
January 6, 1996


A. IN: 33715-96-0013 V

B. CASE AGENTS: Stephen B. Spies, Raymond P. Wilt

C. FIELD DIVISION/OFFICE: Louisville/Bowling Green

D. PHONE: 502-781-7090

E. PROSECUTORS:

John Caudill
James Lesowski
Terry Cushing
Assistant United States Attorneys

F. SYNOPSIS:

On January 6, 1996, the Bowling Green Fire Department responded to a fire at the Howard Johnson Hotel.

Approximately 75 guests were displaced as a result of the fire. Fire department authorities reported that guests trapped in the building were calling '911' to report their locations. There were three immediate fatalities, and a fourth victim expired the next day. Approximately 15 injured persons were transported to emergency medical facilities. Two of those who died were the parents of three children. The three children were rescued by fire fighters and survived. ATF's National Response Team assisted in the investigation.

An intensive investigation, led by the Bowling Green Field Office, culminated in a 2-month jury trial. Investigation revealed that Suresh Kumar and Devinder Deo Sharma (two of the three owners of the hotel) and Joe A. Logan (a maintenance man employed at the hotel) conspired to set a renovation fire that subsequently raged far beyond the scope of the damage originally planned.

G. CHARGES:

United States Code

Title 18, Section 371, Conspiracy
Title 18, Section 844(I), Destruction of a Building by Fire
Title 18, Section 1341, Mail Fraud

H. EVIDENCE:

1. Approximately 100 witnesses testified on behalf of the Government. The first set consisted of fire fighters, an NRT representative, hotel guests, and hotel employees. Those witnesses presented evidence with regard to the fire itself, how it was discovered, NRT findings, and damage to the building.

2. The second set of witnesses described the financial problems that had beset the owners. The hotel was badly in need of renovation. The Howard Johnson franchise had given the hotel increasingly worse quality assurance inspection scores, the last being the fifth-lowest score in the history of the franchise operation. The structure needed a new roof. Estimates of the cost of renovation ran as high as $400,000.

3. A third set of witnesses described the relationship between employees and management at the hotel. The employees were nearly all living on the premises and generally consisted of people who, had they not been employed at the hotel, would have been homeless.

4. A fourth set of witnesses consisted of arson investigators and insurance personnel from Nashville, Tennessee, where Suresh Kumar owned another hotel. That hotel had suffered at least six fires of suspicious origin which had resulted in damages escalating from a few thousand dollars to more than $20,000 in the previous year.

5. A fifth set of witnesses described the activities of the owners and Logan the week before the fire and established that the owners had arranged to be out of town on the date of the fire.

I. LEGAL ISSUES AND PROBLEMS:

An initial issue during the preparation for prosecution was whether to pursue the death penalty. Attorney General Janet Reno determined that the death penalty would not be sought.

A second important issue was the decision by the presiding judge to allow the presentation of the 404(b) evidence regarding the previous fires. That issue was settled prior to trial.

J. NOTEWORTHY INVESTIGATIVE STRATEGY:

An investigative issue arose that had a significant effect on the prosecution. Initially, a hotel maintenance man (not Logan) was considered a prime suspect in the fire. After the Howard Johnson Hotel fire, he and Logan continued to be employed by Kumar at Kumar's Nashville motel.

The maintenance man, hereafter called ìthe cooperating witness,îunexpectedly called the ATF office in Bowling Green and stated that Logan had admitted to setting the Howard Johnson Hotel fire. Arrangements were made to provide the cooperating witness electronic surveillance equipment to tape the alleged confession.

When the cooperating witness finally secured an environment in which a recording could successfully be made, however, Logan changed his story. Logan acknowledged on tape that he had previously told the cooperating witness that he (Logan) had set the fire on the instructions of Kumar and Sharma. Logan then set forth a different version of events by saying that he had only acted as a middleman and that a third individual had actually set the blaze.

The cooperating witness reported that Logan was becoming very reluctant to discuss the fire, but investigators needed additional electronic surveillance evidence.

To resolve the situation, investigators wired the cooperating witness' automobile. The investigators then traveled in a Government-owned vehicle to the Nashville motel, where both the cooperating witness and Logan were living and working. The investigators overtly asked for an interview with both the cooperating witness and Logan. The cooperating witness, who had been advised of the plan, agreed to the interview, and Logan then also agreed.

A sufficient number of investigators were in the Government vehicle to make traveling from the Nashville motel to the interview site uncomfortable. As a consequence, they asked the cooperating witness, in front of Logan, if he would drive Logan to the interview site. The cooperating witness, of course, agreed.

The conversation to the interview site was taped. Logan was put in a position of having to respond to the cooperating witness' questions regarding what to say during the interview and what Logan was going to report.

After the formal interview with Logan during which he provided a sworn, taped, overt statement that he had never told anyone he had anything to do with the fire under investigation the conversation between the cooperating witness and Logan on their return to the Nashville motel was again recorded.

The combination of electronic surveillance taping and overt interview worked well. Investigators were already in possession of an undercover tape in which Logan told the cooperating witness that he had played an intermediate roll in the Howard Johnson fire, and in which he acknowledged having previously told the cooperating witness that he (Logan) had actually set the fire. Investigators now also held an undercover tape in which Logan, enroute to the interview, instructed the cooperating witness to ìkeep your mouth shut,î as well as a sworn, taped, overt interview in which Logan said that he had never admitted to anyone any involvement in the fire.

The recording made covertly from the interview site back to the Nashville motel revealed that Logan was becoming suspicious of the cooperating witness. On that tape, Logan specifically asked the witness if he was wearing a wire.

K. VERDICT AND SENTENCING:

The trial began January 6, 1997--the anniversary of the tragedy. On February 28, 1997, after approximately 12 hours of deliberation, the jury found Suresh Kumar guilty of Conspiracy, Destruction of a Building by Fire, and Mail Fraud. Joe Logan was found guilty of conspiracy and destruction of a building by fire.

On June 23, 1997, following emotional statements by victims and family members, Kumar was sentenced to the maximum possible punishment of 5 years' imprisonment for count 1; life imprisonment for count 2; and 5 years' imprisonment for count 3. Logan was sentenced to the maximum punishment of 5 years' imprisonment for count 1 and life imprisonment for count 2.

 
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