A Kansas City man who fought to save a landmark restaurant from financial ruin was sentenced Monday to 15 years in prison for torching it for the insurance.
By MARK MORRIS
The Kansas City Star
Still maintaining his innocence, Rodney J. Anderson, 60, pleaded for leniency from a Kansas City federal judge and said he was grateful nobody was hurt or killed when the Hereford House restaurant in the Crossroads Arts District burned early on Oct. 20, 2008.
“I remain thankful that the fire did not injure any of our city’s brave firefighters,” said Anderson, who co-owned the restaurant.
Before the fire, Anderson was one of Kansas City’s most recognizable civic figures and active in its charitable life.
Anderson’s two co-defendants, Vincent Pisciotta, 59, and Mark A. Sorrentino, 47, received sentences of 20 years and 15 years, respectively, during a long afternoon of hearings.
U.S. District Judge Greg Kays said he gave Pisciotta additional time because his criminal history includes a 1988 manslaughter conviction. Neither Anderson nor Sorrentino had a criminal record before their arson convictions last year.
Under federal law, a sentence of 15 years was the mandatory minimum each man could have received. All were convicted of conspiracy, arson and using fire to commit a federal felony. Jurors also convicted Anderson of mail fraud.
Kays said he would rule later on how much restitution to assess against the defendants. They jointly could be responsible for more than $1.4 million.
Families and friends of all three men sent letters to the judge asking for leniency. Kays noted that he’d received more than 100 letters on Anderson’s behalf and commended him for work that established him as a community pillar.
“I don’t remember receiving nicer letters,” Kays said. “They share a common thread and a theme of acts of charity and generosity.”
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Jess E. Michaelsen said Anderson was fortunate that the arson did not kill or injure anybody, which would have compelled a far sterner sentence.
Michaelsen urged the judge to focus on the fire and not Anderson’s good works, which included personal acts of kindness to employees and contributions of time and money to the Boy Scouts, the zoo and the Kansas City Convention and Visitors Association.
“The defendant is here today because of his greed and his fear of failure before his friends and his family,” Michaelsen said. “It drove him to hire dangerous men and endanger the lives and property of many others.”
Testimony at trial showed that competition in 2008 from new restaurants in the Power & Light District threatened the Hereford House, which opened in 1957 at 2 E. 20th Street and had begun to show its age. Anderson, who was personally more than $3 million in debt, scrambled for years to find a way to reinvigorate sales at the Hereford House, but without success.
He also considered remodeling the restaurant or moving it to the Power & Light District or to the Freight House District
In the months leading to the fire, Anderson took out $379,500 in loans to keep the restaurant afloat and contended with a $600,000 judgment against him for having personally guaranteed payments in a failed meat supply business.
Jurors never learned how Anderson connected with Pisciotta and Sorrentino to burn the restaurant. Surveillance video from the morning of the fire showed Pisciotta and Sorrentino lugging jugs filled with gasoline into the restaurant and igniting them with a crude timing device.
Pisciotta and Sorrentino still contend that the ghostly figures in the video are not them.
Anderson eventually filed insurance paperwork claiming a $2.4 million loss in the fire.
In a statement after Anderson’s sentencing, lawyers J.R. Hobbs and Cheryl A. Pilate said they planned to continue investigating the fire on their client’s behalf and asked the public to send them any information they have.
“Many unanswered questions remain and justice demands that those questions be answered,” a statement from the lawyers read. “With the help of his loyal supporters …Mr. Anderson is determined to find those answers.”
U.S. Attorney Tammy Dickinson dismissed any claim of Anderson’s innocence.
“Twelve people sat on that jury and found beyond a reasonable doubt that Rodney Anderson was involved,” she said.
Lawyers for all three men have telegraphed some of their appeal points in court filings, both recently and immediately after trial. They are likely to argue that being convicted of both arson and using fire to commit a federal felony, which carried a mandatory-minimum 10-year consecutive sentence, violated the defendants’ constitutional protections against double jeopardy.
And each also has argued for a new trial based on a recent challenge to the trial testimony of Jenifer Sorrentino, Mark Sorrentino’s wife. Lawyers contended that newly obtained cellular telephone records suggested that she could not have been home early the morning of the fire to have seen her husband appearing “beet red” and “reeking of gasoline.”
Kays denied the new-trial motion with a written order Monday morning, saying that Mark Sorrentino’s lawyer should have raised the issue at trial and obtained the records then.
To reach Mark Morris, call 816-234-4310 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.