Flaky Firebugs Foul Up

By Lee McAuliffe Rambo
January 15, 2008
Is common sense common? Not for two arsonists who wanted insurance money but screwed up the jobs and earned long jail sentences instead.

Michael Paul Schook blabbed so much about his crime that it became the subject of small-town gossip in Connecticut before the blaze even started. Another arsonist, California resident Sundeep Dharni, hired a torch who was a bungler and just as dishonest as he. But maybe it’s true that you get what you pay for—which wasn’t much except for a long jail term.

Schook was an ex-con with 26 felony convictions and a heap of debt. His house in Suffield, Conn., was in foreclosure, his car had been repossessed, and he owed thousands on his credit cards. His $250,000 homeowners policy seemed the only recourse.

Schook sought help from a friend living with his family, another ex-con he had met in prison. The buddy was prudent—he declined to set the house afire—but did offer friendly advice on how to get the job done.

Poor Taste in Pals

Schook followed it. In April 2003, he left a fat-filled pan cooking on a hot stove and fled the house with his wife and two daughters. He then called a disabled neighbor who lived several streets away—and who would have difficulty putting out a fire—to check on his house. Schook said he was afraid he had left some bacon and potatoes on the stove.

Sure enough, the neighbor found the house ablaze and called for help. Firefighters doused the flames, but the house was ruined. The blaze had started in the kitchen, most likely on the stove’s right front burner. The cause was “undetermined,” a fire marshal concluded.

But Schook didn’t have good judgment in confidants—and couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

The housemate told authorities that Schook had consulted him about setting a fire that wouldn’t raise suspicions.

Daughter Reveals the Crime

Even Schook’s kids and his former sister-in-law knew about the scheme. One of his girls had told a classmate at Suffield Middle School that the family was having money problems and that her father planned to burn down the house during spring break. That child in turn told a guidance counselor, and the counselor contacted police the day after the blaze.

Even the ex-sister-in law knew about the scheme and contacted police. She said Schook had boasted he wouldn’t get caught because “it was a grease fire, and how can you prove a grease fire?”

Schook collected $82,000 in insurance money, but received seven years in prison for his troubles.

Burned by a Buddy

Sundeep Dharni and Richard Duran were pals too—friendly enough that Duran offered to burn down Dharni’s not-yet-open pizzeria for a measly $1,500 so he could get current on his mortgage.

In the early hours of Halloween Day 2003—the day Pizza Pucks was scheduled to open—Duran let himself in with the key that Dharni had given him. He couldn’t resist all the shiny new equipment in the suburban Sacramento eatery. Duran loaded his van with Dharni’s smoothie-maker, a computer and monitor, a laptop computer, and a surveillance system with a camera and video player.

Then he spread a barbeque-starting gel throughout the business, and lit a fire on a pile of towels and aprons. But the fire did little damage: Duran had set it under a sprinkler head, which activated and quickly doused the flames.

Two weeks later, police conducting a routine traffic stop spied the computer in Duran’s van and found three blank checks belonging to Dharni’s wife in his wallet. Duran quickly fingered Dharni, who received 15 years and was ordered to repay Farmer’s Insurance $22,291—mostly for the loot his buddy Duran had grabbed. Duran got five years in prison.

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