Federal jurors deliberated for almost three hours in the Hereford House arson case Tuesday before retiring for the evening about 5 p.m.
By MARK MORRIS
The Kansas City Star
The panel will resume this morning.
The jury received the case after hearing five days of evidence and about three hours of closing arguments from lawyers.
A prosecutor began the closing phase of the trial by pointing to a 2008 meeting as the critical point where a conspiracy to burn the restaurant began.
The lawyer for restaurateur Rodney Anderson then pleaded with jurors to look carefully at financial evidence that would show that his client had no motive to destroy the landmark dining spot on Oct. 20, 2008, for insurance money.
Anderson, 59, Vincent Pisciotta, 58, and Mark Sorrentino, 46, each are charged with conspiracy, arson, mail fraud and using fire to commit a federal crime.
In summing up the testimony of more than three dozen witnesses, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jess Michaelsen said the best evidence showed that Anderson and Pisciotta met at the restaurant at 2 East 20th St. on Aug. 27, 2008, to discuss the Hereford House’s destruction.
“Mr. Anderson closed the deal with Mr. Pisciotta the moment (Pisciotta) came in the door that morning,” Michaelsen said. “That deal was to torch the place and collect the insurance.”
Prosecutors have contended that Anderson believed the restaurant, which opened in 1957, needed remodeling or rebuilding to be more competitive with new businesses in the Power & Light District. Witnesses testified, however, that such costs would have been more than Anderson could afford.
Anderson’s lawyer, J.R. Hobbs, responded by acknowledging that his client was in financial distress, but noted that Anderson had filed for personal bankruptcy before he sent detailed loss claims to the insurance company.
“The bankruptcy was the key to solving his financial situation, not the insurance,” Hobbs said.
Pisciotta’s lawyer, Assistant Federal Public Defender Larry Pace, urged jurors to disregard as unreliable the testimony of two men, both friends of Pisciotta’s girlfriend, who identified his client from surveillance video taken at the restaurant. Jurors, Pace said, could look at the same video and see if it matches the man sitting at the defense table.
“I want you to look at the pictures,” Pace said. “That is critical.”
N. Trey Pettlon III, who represented Sorrentino, said the chief witness against his client has obvious bias and could not be trusted to give truthful testimony. Jenifer Sorrentino, Mark Sorrentino’s ex-wife, testified that her husband came home reeking of gasoline the morning of the Hereford House arson. She also identified him from surveillance video and previously had collected a $10,000 reward for providing information in the case.
“Jenifer Sorrentino did not come forward out of the goodness of her heart,” Pettlon said. “It was an opportunity.”
Both Pettlon and Pace also hammered on Jenifer Sorrentino’s credibility, noting that records from a Wyandotte County casino showed that her “players” card had been used there the night she witnessed her husband coming home smelling of fuel.
When confronted with the records at trial, Jenifer Sorrentino explained that she often exchanged cards with her mother, saying it was a family “superstition.”
Prosecutor Paul Becker, arguing in rebuttal, acknowledged that Jenifer Sorrentino’s card had been used, but said that she was credible despite the friction in her marriage.
“Jenifer Sorrentino certainly has no love lost for her ex-husband,” Becker said. “But who better to identify him?”
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