Judging the arson: guilty as charredBy James Quiggle
March 1, 2004
Cornered by charges of insurance fraud that could end his career as Fairfield County judge, Don McAuliffe did what any desperate defendant would do.
Blame everybody else
Ohioans were riveted by the spectacle of an elected judge, of all people, standing trial for torching his lakeside home for $235,000 in insurance money. How could someone sworn to uphold the law so brazenly break it?“As judge, it is his responsibility to obey the law and uphold the law. If he is really guilty, as a judge, what he did is worse than the regular person.”
McAuliffe’s creaky old wood house along Buckeye Lake became a blackened heap after a fire swept through it early one morning. Investigators quickly smelled a rat after sifting through the ruins.
McAuliffe was soon arrested. The full story soon came out during his riveting three-week trial. The spectacle of a well-known judge up on fraud charges drew statewide headlines throughout his trial.
McAuliffe had hired handyman D.J. Faller to remodel his lakeside house. They soon started drinking and socializing at strip clubs, then started a contracting business together. One day Faller suggested they torch his home because it would be too expensive to repair.
Sure, why not? McAuliffe agreed.
He quickly increased the coverage on the home by $200,000 for a sweeter insurance payout to finish off his mortgage, plus buy a new home and vehicle.
First, he and Faller tried to blow up the house by breaking a natural gas line. After severing the line, McAuliffe strangely told his girlfriend Beth Westminster to remove his heirlooms such as a grandfather clock, boyhood toy chest, family photos and an old family Bible from his house.
He never told her the house was filling with leaking gas that could blow at any minute. Luckily, the house didn’t explode while she was there.
Miffed but undeterred, McAuliffe tried again. He sped off to the Virgin Islands to create an alibi, telling Faller to lean a hot halogen lamp against an interior wall. Before long, the house finally caught fire and burned down.
McAuliffe negotiated a $235,000 payout from Grange Insurance before his arrest.
Increasingly boxed in during his trial, he desperately tried to blame Faller, Westminster, her children and even his insurance agent for the many suspicious coincidences.
The fire was totally Faller’s idea and McAuliffe had flatly turned him down, he insisted to the disbelieving jury.
So why didn’t McAuliffe — a judge, for goodness sake — report Faller to the police and his insurer after the fire? Nobody asked him about it so he didn’t feel he legally needed to, he told prosecutors with a straight face. “I would answer what they asked truthfully but not volunteer anything,” he said during the trial.
Westminster’s kids had actually kicked over the halogen lamp, and it was the girlfriend’s idea to remove his heirlooms from the doomed house, not his, he said.
And why did he hike his insurance by more than $200,000 just before the blaze? Just a coincidence; his insurance agent had acted on his own, McAuliffe claimed.
Both Faller and Westminster ganged up on him at trial. They’d correctly thought a desperate McAuliffe would try to finger them, so they cooperated with police from the start. Each even secretly taped incriminating conversations with him before the arrest.
McAuliffe’s career came to a crashing halt when a jury of ordinary Ohioans convicted him in mid-February. McAuliffe will serve up to 20 years in federal prison when sentenced.
After the trial, local resident Steve Conrad undoubtedly spoke for many Ohioans who followed the tale of McAuliffe’s tortuous decent into insurance fraud.
“If he did what they said he did, then he should be found guilty, and any sentence he receives should be fair,” Conrad told reporters.
The judge was finally judged.
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