The trial of a restaurateur for the fiery demise of the Hereford House in 2008 could turn on whether the grainy figures in surveillance images are, in fact, two of the men seated at the defendants’ table.
And throughout the trial, a lawyer for Rodney J. Anderson — who operated the restaurant and tried to cash an insurance policy after the fire — should be locked with prosecutors in an intriguing battle of dueling spreadsheets.
Throw in a couple of mystery witnesses and dark intimations of mob involvement, and the trial opening today has all the makings for a crackling week in federal court.
The arson and fraud case centers on the Oct. 20, 2008, fire that destroyed a landmark Kansas City dining attraction. Opening its doors in the late 1950s, the Hereford House’s charcoal-broiled steaks became a hit with diners and with civic and business groups that scheduled breakfast and luncheon meetings at its easy-to-find location at 2 East 20th St.
By 2008, competition from new restaurants in the Power & Light District just a few blocks north threatened the Hereford House, which had begun to show its age. Prosecutors argued in court records this month that those conditions prompted Anderson, who joined the business in 1987, to conspire with Vincent Pisciotta and Mark A. Sorrentino to torch the place for insurance money.
“Anderson obtained the assistance of Pisciotta to set fire to and destroy the restaurant,” prosecutors Paul Becker and Jess Michaelsen wrote in a trial brief. “This would allow for the collection of the insurance proceeds that would pay for the remodeling that was needed for the restaurant to regain its prominence.”
Anderson eventually filed insurance paperwork claiming a total loss of $2,422,098 in the fire.
Expect a fight on the financial front from Anderson’s defense lawyer J.R. Hobbs, who has filled his witness and exhibit lists with business experts, financial summaries and tax returns.
A dip into Anderson’s February 2009 bankruptcy petition gives some sense of where that fight is headed.
Anderson claimed about $1.2 million in assets — mostly his home in Sunset Hills — against almost $3 million in liabilities. The bankruptcy filings, however, showed that Anderson held only a 2 percent ownership interest in the Kansas City Hereford House restaurant.
But like Hobbs, prosecutors have lined up their own financial expert — a senior forensic auditor with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — to convince jurors that arson made financial sense for Anderson.
The least contentious part of the case will be proving that the crime was arson. Digital video surveillance shows men bringing 14 liquid-filled plastic containers, which prosecutors contend were filled with gasoline, into the restaurant just before midnight Oct. 19.
To prove that Pisciotta and Sorrentino were the men who hauled in those containers, prosecutors will depend on the testimony of an ATF special agent whose job it was to get intimately familiar with their appearance, mannerisms and dress.
The agent spent hours comparing surveillance pictures from the restaurant to video of Pisciotta and Sorrentino harvested from a camera that agents attached to a pole near a building that Pisciotta owns.
Last week, Pisciotta’s lawyer objected to that method of identification, urging the judge to let the images speak for themselves.
“The identity of persons in some surveillance photographs is the ultimate question for the jury,” defense lawyer Larry Pace wrote in a court filing.
Anderson, who may testify in his own defense, acknowledged meeting someone in the restaurant whom prosecutors have identified as Pisciotta, court records said. But Anderson has said he did not know who that person was, other than, perhaps, an “out-of-town investor wearing a ball cap” or, later on, someone from whom he hoped to purchase “cheap stoves.”
Anderson did acknowledge he had given the man a key and the restaurant’s alarm codes, according to court records.
No Kansas City restaurant arson case would be complete without rumblings of possible mob involvement.
The first inkling came from defense lawyer Pace, who asked a judge to bar prosecutors from mentioning the words “organized crime” or “Mafia” in front of jurors. Prosecutors responded that they had no plans to, but in a later court filing they identified Pisciotta as a “made” member of the local outfit.
The case also will have its moments of intrigue.
Becker and Michaelsen recently asked for permission to shield the identities of two witnesses from defense lawyers until the day before they are scheduled to testify, an unusual practice in federal court.
“The government believes that disclosure of materials relating to these two witnesses would put them in danger prior to their testimony in this case,” prosecutors wrote. “In pretrial interviews, both witnesses have expressed a concern for their safety should they be called to testify in this case.”
Prosecutors also have promised money to the witnesses so they can relocate from their homes in Kansas City after they testify.
After hearing objections from the defense lawyers, U.S. District Judge Dean Whipple opted to have prosecutors give up the names a few days before their testimony. Still, the defense lawyers can’t freely share the witnesses’ names with their clients, Whipple ordered.
“Defendants’ counsel shall not divulge to any defendant the identity of, or any material relating to, either of the undisclosed witnesses,” Whipple wrote, “until 24 hours before each witness’s anticipated testimony.”