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The crime of arson is violent. Not only is property damaged, people die. Most arson attacks are committed for malice, anger, revenge or spousal abuse. About 25 percent are willing to deceive insurers. Fires that are designed to deceive an insurer are called, by arson investigators, “arson for profit.”
Since most perpetrators do not understand uncontrolled fires, they believe that arson is simple and risk-free. The incipient arsonist believes that all evidence that could bind him to the crime will be consumed by the fire. He or she is wrong.
Ben Standish was a murderer who might have tried a less violent crime if he knew more about fire. Had he known that evidence would remain after the fire was extinguished by firefighters, his house would not be a charred hulk. Had he known that it is difficult to avoid injury, he would have made a personal bankruptcy rather than using arson as a method of getting out of debt.
Ben Standish was upside down on his mortgage and a balloon payment was to be paid. The value of his house had decreased by $ 200,000 in the last two years. He could not find a lender willing to lend him enough to cover the balloon payment that was $ 100,000 more than the real market value of the house. He was desperate.
Ben decided that his only solution was to burn down his house and sell it to his insurance company. An honest man, faced with the shame of bankruptcy, decided that fraud by an insurance company was not criminal. He had paid them premiums for 10 years without claim. They owed him.
Ben owned a shoe store. He was very successful and had no problem making the monthly payments on his $ 600,000 home loan. Ben Standish was short of cash. He could not recoup the difference between the amount a bank would lend and the amount he needed to pay the balloon payment. He had three weeks and, according to him, no choice.
A graduate of Venice High School who had attended two business classes at Pasadena City College, Ben had no education, knowledge or background in the activities and use of fire or flammable liquids. Ben had seen a movie on television called “Batteries Not Included” in which a professional arsonist burned down an apartment building in the Bronx. Standish decided to emulate the person in the film. A fire in his house would pay off the mortgage. His debt problem would be solved. He would then borrow the money needed to rebuild a house on the soon-to-be-empty plot.
The day after his wife traveled to Atlanta, Ben, under the name George Johnson, rented a public storage unit about 12 feet by 10 feet. He carefully moved into that device his jewelry, his wife’s jewelry (which she did not take to Atlanta), a new Sony 60-inch plasma TV, DVR and Surround Sound system. All the family’s DVDs. videotapes, photographs and accounting documents that would be impossible to replace, he moved to the storeroom. When he was finished, the storeroom was full. He purchased a separate insurance through the facility to cover more than $ 150,000 of valuables and all the private papers and photographs of the family that he had stored at the Public Storage unit.
Friday afternoon, after closing his shoe store, Ben visited his local Shell service station and filled a five-gallon can of gasoline. He went to the PayLess Drug Store and bought a package of balloons and in the Ace Hardware store next to PayLess he bought a carpenter’s staple gun.
The rescue service arrived at the fire scene within minutes. Water streams were placed on the site and the fire was extinguished. Due to the lightning from the explosion, most of the balloons remained intact. The firefighters, expecting a simple house fire, sat on the front steps and the curb, shaking with fear. They realized that if one of these balloons had dropped, it would have caused an explosion that could have killed some or all of the firefighters. Their captain, who was so angry at the danger his men had faced, was almost speechless when he called for an arson unit to get to the fire scene.
“It’s okay Orson. I’m calm now. But the sonofabitch hung balloons full of gasoline all over the roof. If we had not put out the fire right away we would have dead firefighters here on the grass. You have to get the person who made this the fire. “
“Have you done any review, Captain?”
“No. As soon as the fire was extinguished and was no longer a danger to the rest of the neighborhood, I let the firefighters stand down and set up a security perimeter. No one has been in the house except the firefighters.”
Campizi grabbed his camera and threw it over his shoulder, pulled a shovel and a broom from his car luggage and entered the house.
Four hours later, Campizi had taken 72 photographs of the fire site, collected four gasoline-filled balloons, six one-liter cans of cloth and carpets that Campizi thought were soaked in gasoline, a small plastic package with a label that said it contained 10 “Happy Birthday Balloons. The bar-coded price tag was still visible and showed that the balloons were purchased from a PayLess Drug Store.
The captain and two uniformed policemen stood next to the pump and drank from Styrofoam cups what appeared to be coffee. As Campizi approached, they drew attention and anxiously awaited his arrival. Behind the yellow tape were 10 men in suits holding clipboards. Campizi recognized them as lawyers for various companies of public insurance adjusters who seemed to show up at every fire scene. They all talked to each other because the owner had not yet arrived.
“Mr. Standish, you are under arrest. I must inform you that you have the right to remain silent and refuse to answer any questions I put to you; you have the right to have a lawyer present while I ask you. Do you want to waive your rights? as I have just explained to you? ”
“Sure, I’m going to relinquish the rights. You did me a disservice.”
“And the vultures who try to register him will not get anything.”
“Not really. They find the mortgagee and take it out. Even when we prove that Standish burned down his house, his insurance company still has to pay the mortgagee.”
“You’m kidding. You mean, if he ends up in jail, he’s still getting out of debt?”
“Yes. And you thought crime did not pay off.”
“Orson, I’ll never say anything bad about my insurance company again.”
Arson is the least effective and most dangerous method of deceiving an insurer. Even a hot burning gas-fired arson for profit leaves physical evidence. A fire will rarely destroy everything.
(c) 2022 Barry Zalma & ClaimSchool, Inc.
Barry Zalma, Esq., CFE, now limits his internship to the position of insurance consultant specializing in insurance coverage, insurance claims handling, insurance bad faith and insurance fraud almost equally for insurers and policyholders. He practiced law in California for more than 44 years as a lawyer for insurance coverage and claims management and more than 54 years in the insurance industry. He is available at http://www.zalma.com and email@example.com.
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