Evidence of arson was so pervasive at the Hereford House that the fire chief at the time, Smokey Dyer, called for federal assistance even before firefighters had begun to clean up.
Dyer wrapped up the first day of testimony in the trial of three men accused of conspiracy, arson and fraud in the Oct. 20, 2008, blaze that destroyed the Kansas City dining landmark.
Kansas City restaurateur Rodney J. Anderson is accused of hiring Vincent Pisciotta and Mark A. Sorrentino to burn his restaurant so he could collect insurance money. Those funds, prosecutors have alleged, would have paid for renovations to make the Hereford House, once located at 2 E. 20th St., more competitive with newer restaurants in the Power & Light District.
Dyer said that debris blown onto 20th Street confirmed an initial report of an explosion in the building. His crews then began reporting a pervasive odor of gasoline in and above the building.
Had crews begun to drag smoldering furniture out of the restaurant, they probably would have destroyed critical evidence that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives needed to build a case for a criminal prosecution, Dyer said.
Dyer also noted dangers to firefighters in battling the blaze. Jugs of gasoline littered the floor, which could have ignited a flash fire as firefighters battled a blaze above the ceiling at the restaurant.
And a valve that fed water to the overhead sprinkler system had been turned off, Dyer observed. Losing the sprinkler system also disabled an outdoor alarm system that tells first responders how many sprinkler heads have been activated, thus allowing them to quickly call for extra equipment in a large blaze.
“The fire suppression system had been turned off,” Dyer said.
In opening statements, lawyers described the case that jurors could expect to hear in the next week.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jess E. Michaelsen painted a dire picture of Anderson’s finances and alleged that he turned to arson out of desperation.
“He was out of options to keep his business open,” Michaelsen said. “He was out of options to fulfill his dream.”
J.R. Hobbs, Anderson’s defense lawyer, acknowledged that his client faced financial problems but noted that those stemmed from issues at other restaurants in which he had an ownership interest.
Any money from a fire at the Kansas City Hereford House would not have helped Anderson with his other ventures.
“There is no personal or professional motive on behalf of Mr. Anderson,” Hobbs said.
Sorrentino’s attorney, N. Trey Pettlon III, challenged jurors to carefully scrutinize the grainy pictures of a stout arsonist taken from restaurant surveillance video. The dim images contained no facial detail, Pettlon said.
And Sorrentino’s body type is not particularly unique in Kansas City, Pettlon said.
“The government decided that this, probably, is Mark Sorrentino,” Pettlon said. “The evidence is the shape of his body and that (Sorrentino is) friends with Vincent Pisciotta. That’s the evidence.”
In an early morning hearing before jury selection began, prosecutors disclosed that Anderson rejected three possible plea bargains in the months leading up to the trial.
Anderson declined two offers that would have had prosecutors recommending sentences of five years in prison, one with an agreement to cooperate with prosecutors and one without. The most recent offer, made last month, would have had a binding seven-year sentence with a cooperation agreement.
Lawyers representing Pisciotta and Sorrentino said their clients were never interested in plea negotiations, so no formal offers were ever made.