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Coalition Against Insurance Fraud

Pleas expected for $65K arson-for-hire case in Wisc.

January 08, 2013, Manitowoc, WI — The first time Matthew Lemberger lost property in a fire, a community rallied in support and raised money to help him and his wife get back on their feet.

When it happened again four years later, the former driving school owner found himself charged in federal court and facing 60 years in prison and $1 million in fines.

Now three people embroiled in the more recent case in Brown County and an alleged accomplice in the older Manitowoc County case may find themselves facing prison time, too. The complex tale of arson-for-hire, murder-for-hire, insurance fraud and mail fraud has provided a six-year drama that comes to a head in the coming weeks in federal and state circuit court.

When Lemberger’s home burned in March 2006, the Manitowoc community thought he and his wife, a mixed-race couple, were victims of a hate crime. The two, who owned and operated Littleways Driving School in Manitowoc, were traveling in England when someone burned their home at 418 N. Seventh St. and painted racial slurs on their two cars. City officials decried the arson as a cowardly act, and the community raised money and managed to get the couple a car to use for their driving school when their vehicles were tied up in a police evidence garage.

Former Manitowoc mayor Kevin Crawford met with Lemberger’s in-laws, visiting from Malawi, to assure them their daughter was safe and that Manitowoc was a welcoming community.

Lemberger collected $65,144 in insurance money, and the insurance company paid an additional $59,659 toward his outstanding mortgage, court records say.

Despite an $11,000 reward fund for information, investigation into the case got nowhere for four years. But in December 2010, when a storage building that Lemberger rented in Denmark burned to the ground and Lemberger put in an insurance claim for the damage, police stepped up investigation into the old house fire.

In April, about a month after the statute of limitations ran out on that 2006 Manitowoc fire, Lemberger told investigators he hired James Bresnahan of Mukwonago to set the fire, court records say. Lemberger told investigators Bresnahan said he’d committed arsons in the past for other people. Lemberger said he wanted his house torched because he could no longer afford his wife’s expensive lifestyle, and he promised to pay Bresnahan $5,000 from the eventual insurance payout if Bresnahan would set the fire.

Lemberger said it was Bresnahan’s idea to make it look like a racially motivated act to divert suspicion from Lemberger. Bresnahan also brought his brother, Cullen, into the conspiracy, Lemberger allegedly told investigators.

In October, investigators questioned Cullen Bresnahan, who is serving time on unrelated charges in a Racine prison, and he verified Lemberger’s claim, court records say.

Neither Lemberger nor Cullen Bresnahan can be charged in the case because the statute of limitations has run out. But James Bresnahan, 40, lived in Canada for 3½ years during the investigation. That temporarily stopped the clock on the statute of limitations for him. He was charged in November in Manitowoc County Circuit Court with being party to arson. The case is scheduled for a settlement conference Feb. 7. He faces 40 years in prison and a fine up to $100,000.

Meanwhile, Lemberger and three other men are charged in U.S. District Court in Green Bay in connection with the Dec. 15, 2010, fire to a Quonset hut that Lemberger rented at 5534 Brown County P, Denmark. Those charges are in federal court because Lemberger was involved in the buying and selling of electronic control modules for diesel engines as an interstate business, which puts it in federal jurisdiction.

Two months before the fire happened, Lemberger bought 720 of the modules for $50,400, a cost of $70 per unit. That was the price he negotiated from the asking price of $500 per unit, or $360,000 total, according to court records. He put the modules on pallets in the Quonset hut and, within a week, jacked his property insurance up from $900,000 to $1.4 million, court records say.

After the fire, Lemberger told people, including his insurer, that he bought the modules for $500 apiece, the criminal complaint says. Five months after the fire, Lemberger put in a claim to Auto Owners Insurance Co. of Appleton, which paid him $325,000 for his loss, the criminal complaint says.

A confidential informant told investigators Lemberger was plotting an insurance scam before the modules even made it into the storage facility, the complaint says. The informant claimed Lemberger offered him $250,000 to torch the Quonset hut and its contents. Lemberger eventually paid him $5,000, but it wasn’t clear whether that was for setting the fire or in compensation for a bulldozer that Lemberger had sold on his behalf, the complaint says.

“Whatever. Both,” Lemberger allegedly told him.

Eventually, Lemberger told the informant he only had $74,000 left from the insurance payout after allocating money to others, and that he was afraid to touch it and arouse investigators’ suspicion. Instead, he offered the informant a partnership in an overseas construction venture as compensation, the informant allegedly told investigators.

Lemberger is accused of making arrangements for a murder, which the complaint doesn’t detail other than to say it would be “as consideration for a promise and agreement to pay anything of pecuniary value.” The U.S. Attorney’s office issued a statement saying Lemberger offered to kill the spouse of one of the co-conspirators as payment for his help in setting the fire.

The unnamed informant and an accomplice identified in the complaint only as “J.K.” set the fire Dec. 15, 2010, court records say. J.K. drained a fuel line on a truck inside the Quonset hut, soaked a blanket in diesel fuel and ignited it under the truck, the complaint says. The confidential informant sprayed fuel oil on cardboard he placed near the electronic control modules and put tires on top of them to help fuel the fire, the complaint says.

The complaint doesn’t identify either man, but arson charges eventually were filed against James Kannenberg, 65, and Thomas Wank, 54, both of Jackson, alleging their involvement. Another man, Adam Jaehnig, 35, a former Green Bay man now living in Dunwoody, Ga., was charged with making false statements to investigators June 6, 2011, by denying having knowledge of the scheme. Court records don’t spell out what Jaehnig supposedly knew and what he said about the fire.

All four were scheduled for trial this month before U.S. District Judge William Griesbach, but plea agreements are in the works, and they are scheduled to enter changes of plea. Kannenberg is scheduled for Wednesday, Wank and Jaehnig are scheduled for Jan. 14 and Lemberger is scheduled for Jan. 18.

Source: The Northwestern.com

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