Home arson schemes go up in smoke

By James Quiggle
March 16, 2009
As the recession stretches grimly onward, thousands of stressed homeowners are staring at foreclosure and desperately looking to avoid losing their homes.

For some, the clear-headed answer is to burn down the home they want to save.

Driven over the cliff’s edge emotionally and financially, these troubled homeowners hope insurance fraud will bail them out of foreclosure or soak up mounting bills as their finances crater in a sagging economy.

But instead, their smoky schemes endanger neighbors and fire fighters, raise honest people’s premiums, and speed their own path to ruin.

Juan Jose Luna’s arson scheme literally blew up in his face.

The Live Oak, Calif. man had three liens on his house and wanted a quick way out. So he sloshed gasoline around his place and ignited the blaze with a cigarette lighter at the back door.

Luna expected a fire to spread.

Instead, his house blew up.

Door hurts hand

The blast pushed out the walls two feet. Only earthquake strapping kept the place from collapsing.

Glass flew 90 feet and the back door was blown against Luna’s hand, nearly severing two fingers.

His home was destroyed. Worried about more explosions, fire fighters didn’t enter the place for hours.

Luna was found wandering two blocks from the inferno. Two fingers hung by strips of flesh, and other digits were broken.

His clothes smelled of gasoline and, oddly, he had $8,000 in cash with him.

Luna received nine months in jail.

He has good company. Jason Morgan was behind on his bills. In a fit of imaginative excuse-making, he burned down his house and car for insurance money but blamed the mess on Hell’s Angels.

One of the motorcycle gang’s members knocked him out, possibly with a shovel, the Fresno, Calif. man said.

Said knocked out twice

Morgan claimed he woke up and found a cigarette wrapped inside a tissue inside his car. The vehicle suddenly blew up and knocked him out, yet again.

Morgan awoke for the second time to see fire fighters battling blazes in his home and car, he claimed.

But the story crashed and burned, like his home.

Aside from his shaky finances, he had a hard time explaining the burns on his face and hands. The blazes also were set in different places in his home and car. And his dog was found safe in a detached garage.

Morgan received four years in jail. Instead of receiving an insurance bailout, he’s paying to rebuild his wrecked home. The fire caused more than $130,700 in damage to his house and car.

Just four days from foreclosure, Sheryl Christman barbequed her Grand Rapids, Mich.-area house—with her family inside. Heavy smoke was visible 10 miles away, but luckily her family escaped unharmed. Christman’s boyfriend turned her in. She must perform 1,000 hours of community service.

Candle under paper towels

Krista Meeker stared into a financial abyss. She and her husband hadn’t paid property taxes on their Juneau, Alaska-area house, they were behind on mortgage payments, and both of their vehicles were about to be repossessed.

Meeker placed a burning candle under a roll of paper towels. The resulting fire polished off her home. She’ll be sentenced in June 2009.

Most distressed homeowners aren’t hardened criminals. They’re ordinary people driven past the brink by a once-in-a-generation recession. Addled by crumbling finances and lives, they grasp for insurance fraud as a last-ditch lifeline.

But all they find is a roadway to ruin.

“I am so ashamed for my actions. I feel like I’m carrying a load of bricks on me every day,” Christman told the judge after her conviction.


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