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Arson investigators suspect furniture store owner set fire to own business
Aug 10, 2012 (The Bakersfield Californian - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Bakersfield arson investigators have seized the cell phone records of a furniture store owner they suspect burned down his business to defraud his insurance company, records filed in court show.
On June 26, the business, Home Decor Furniture, burned to what firefighters described at the time to be "a total loss." The damage to the 40,000-square-foot property at 2501 Union Ave. was estimated to be $3 million.
Now, investigators believe the business owner, Peter Phan, may have set fire to the building to alleviate his financial woes, according to a search warrant filed in Kern County Superior Court. Phan owned the furniture business, but not the building.
On Friday, Phan did not answer the cell phone number listed in the search warrant. He was not at work at Home Decor's location at 900 Chester Ave. and did not reply to an email.
The morning of the fire, Phan expressed disbelief. He said he was asleep when he got a call from his alarm company about the fire.
"I never imagined a big fire like this could happen because it's a metal building. I don't know how it could burn down a whole big store," Phan said that morning.
The building's owner, Ted Pierce, was out of the state Friday and could not be reached for comment at his office or home.
Bakersfield Fire Department Capt. Victor Mabry described his investigation of the fire in the search warrant, executed Aug. 2 A statement of what investigators seized was filed in court Tuesday.
Battalion Chief Ross Kelly, a spokesman for the department, said Friday he did not have any more information on the case outside of the search warrant.
The fire appeared to have started at three different locations, according to the search warrant. At each location, there were rectangular boxes and furniture gathered. No accidental source of ignition was found at any location, according to the warrant.
"All three locations were ignited using common combustibles found on scene (cardboard, furniture cushions) and an open flame device such as a cigarette lighter or match," Mabry wrote in the warrant.
Also suspicious to Mabry was the fact that there was no sign of forced entry into the building, according to the warrant. When firefighters responded to the fire, all front doors remained locked and were locked at three different points. There were also no holes in the sides of the building that someone could use to get into the store.
Over the course of the investigation, Mabry discovered Phan had financial difficulties, according to the warrant. A $6,900 check for the June lease payment for the store had bounced. And an anonymous caller told investigators that Phan had told employees the business was going into debt and he didn't know how he was going to pay them, according to the warrant.
Home Decor's insurance provider, Allstate Insurance, was also close to canceling the policy due to three separate insurance claims against the business, according to the warrant.
Allstate does not comment on specific insurance claims, said Jim Klapthor, a spokesman for company. But generally, he said, in cases where insurance fraud is suspected -- when there are what Klapthor would only describe as "telltale signs" -- the claim will be investigated by the company's special investigation unit. If the unit finds proof, it contacts the local district attorney, the state department of insurance or both.
Fraud costs insurance companies nationwide billions of dollary annually, Klapthor said.
"Insurance fraud is real, and it's a real problem, and it affects everyone's insurance rate," he said.
Bakersfield arson investigators are hoping the cell phone records will show Phan's location during the fire, according to the warrant. They seized from Sprint Nextel information about the current owner of record, any past owners of record, incoming and outgoing calls and texts, cell tower usage and location of the mobile device through GPS or triangulation of cell towers.
"I believe the result of this search warrant will show that Peter Phan intended to set fire to and burn Home Decor Furniture at 2501 Union Ave. on June 26, 2012," Mabry wrote, "in order to defraud Allstate Insurance Company."
___ (c)2012 The Bakersfield Californian (Bakersfield, Calif.) Visit The
Bakersfield Californian (Bakersfield, Calif.) at www.bakersfield.com Distributed
by MCT Information Services
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UPDATED 3:47 AM EST - May 22, 2013
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