A federal jury convicted Hereford House’s co-owner and two co-defendants Wednesday of conspiring to torch the dining landmark to collect the insurance money.
By MARK MORRIS
The Kansas City Star
Rod Anderson, 59; Vincent Pisciotta, 58; and Mark Sorrentino, 46, each had been charged with conspiracy, arson, mail fraud and using fire to commit a federal crime.
Jurors found Anderson guilty on all four counts and Pisciotta and Sorrentino guilty on each count except mail fraud. Authorities took the men into custody after the verdicts were announced.
The verdicts came after a seven-day trial that, for the defendants, focused heavily on questions of motive and identification. No one disputed evidence that arsonists ignited the Oct. 20, 2008, fire that destroyed the iconic restaurant at 2 E. 20th St. in the Crossroads Arts District.
None of the three defendants testified.
Family and friends of Pisciotta and Sorrentino, who filled the courtroom gallery each day of trial, appeared stunned and saddened after U.S. District Judge Greg Kays announced the verdicts. They declined to speak with reporters.
Acting U.S. Attorney David Ketchmark said his office was “very happy” with the jury’s verdicts.
“It’s a big relief to have this case done, for our office and for these agents,” Ketchmark said.
All three men face substantial prison time.
A federal arson conviction carries a mandatory minimum sentence of at least five years, while using fire to commit a federal crime carries a minimum 10-year sentence to run consecutively to any other sentence imposed.
Prosecutors contended that competition in 2008 from new restaurants in the Power & Light District threatened the Hereford House, which opened in 1957 and had begun to show its age. Deeply in debt personally, Anderson conspired with Pisciotta and Sorrentino to burn the restaurant and get insurance money to allow him to remodel and rebuild, prosecutors alleged.
Anderson eventually filed insurance paperwork claiming a $2.4 million loss in the fire.
Converging on the scene early the morning of the fire, Kansas City firefighters and investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives immediately suspected arson because of the overpowering smell of gasoline inside the restaurant.
Anderson came squarely in their sights when, the day after the fire, he admitted to an ATF agent that he had given a key and an alarm code to a man whom he first described as an out-of-town investor but later said was trying to sell him “cheap stoves.”
That evolving story deepened the investigators’ suspicions.
“When defendants realize they are in trouble, they make excuses,” Ketchmark said.
Investigators immediately checked surveillance video for dates that particular alarm code had been used and found images that became central to the case.
In late September 2008, Anderson had used the code, which had been issued to an employee fired a month before, to open the restaurant and show it to a man whom investigators later identified as Pisciotta.
A week before the blaze, Pisciotta and two others opened the restaurant late one night for what appeared to be a dry run for the arson. Though investigators never have identified the third man, they have alleged that Pisciotta and Sorrentino were the two others.
Ketchmark said his office is prepared to reopen the case should credible evidence emerge to charge the third man.
Video from the night of the arson showed the men bringing in 14 jugs containing what later was identified as gasoline. They set off the gasoline fumes using an ingenious delayed ignition device comprised of tobacco products and rags that allowed them to escape the resulting explosion without injury.
The final images from the surveillance video within the restaurant showed a small smoldering fire that flashed quickly into an explosion that blew out part of the restaurant’s south wall.
Though Anderson remained a prime suspect, investigators did not find evidence for a case against Pisciotta and Sorrentino for almost two years. In August 2010, an ATF agent spoke with Jenifer Sorrentino, Mark Sorrentino’s ex-wife, who identified her then-husband and Pisciotta in the surveillance video.
In testimony at trial, Jenifer Sorrentino also recalled that Mark Sorrentino came home early the morning of the Hereford House fire smelling strongly of gasoline.
After both men were charged in the case, other witnesses came forward who also said they could identify the men from the surveillance video.
Prosecutors withheld Jenifer Sorrentino’s identity until the first day of trial, giving defense lawyers little time to check out her story. In the few days they had, lawyers uncovered Wyandotte County casino records that suggested she may have been there, rather than with her husband the night of the fire. Mark Sorrentino’s lawyer, N. Trey Pettlon III, said he would explore whether that is a good appeals issue for his client.
“Her testimony was pivotal in the outcome of the case,” Pettlon said. “The late disclosure made it impossible to do any meaningful research into what other records might exist to confirm that she was not at the home the night of the fire.”
Charges against Anderson, announced in June 2010, shocked many in the Kansas City restaurant community, who viewed him as a stalwart businessman and civic booster.
He regularly donated products and services for community events, and longtime employees praised him for offering benefits, like insurance, retirement plans and vacation time, that other restaurant managers did not.
The Greater Kansas City Restaurant Association named him 1997 Restaurateur of the Year, and in 2001 the Hotel and Motel Association of Greater Kansas City gave him its Hospitality Leadership Award.
In 1999, the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City and Inc. magazine ranked Anderson’s company No. 70 on a list of America’s fastest-growing inner-city private companies.
In February 2009, four months after the Hereford House fire, Anderson filed for personal bankruptcy, disclosing that he had personal assets of $1.24 million and debts of nearly $3 million.
Pisciotta was identified throughout the trial as a retired produce dealer, while Sorrentino was said to operate a repossession business.
One of the lingering questions from the case was how Anderson, who had been with the restaurant since 1987, overlooked the problems that surveillance video could create for him as he allegedly planned the arson.
But testimony from the chief financial officer of Anderson’s restaurant group suggested that Anderson may have been taken in by a ruse designed to fool burglars.
The actual machine that recorded video surveillance operated in a locked supply closet in the nearby corporate offices, well away from the damage, said James Stanislav, the financial officer. However, the security company had set up a dummy videocassette recorder next to a working video monitor in a room that managers used to count cash. That VCR was bait for burglars who, if they took it, would think they were taking the guts of the real surveillance system.
Stanislav said he gave the actual digital video recorder to investigators not long after the fire was out. Stanislav testified that he mentioned that to Anderson the afternoon of Oct. 20, 2008.
Here’s how Stanislav remembered that conversation in testimony:
“So, you’ve been in the cash room?” Anderson asked.
“No, I’ve been in the supply closet,” Stanslav replied. “That’s where the DVR is kept.”
A prosecutor asked Stanislav how Anderson reacted.
“He was somewhat surprised.”
Dates on the Anderson’s verdict form show that jurors made their decisions on his guilt Tuesday and spent Wednesday focusing on Pisciotta and Sorrentino.
To contact Mark Morris, call 816-234-4310 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.