Binge Burners and Their Attempts to Get Rich
Arsonists get greedy and burn down many buildings in the hope of hefty insurance payouts.
Sometimes reducing just one building to charcoal isn’t enough. When arsonists get greedy, they commit serial torching acts and burn down as many buildings as they can, usually for hefty insurance payouts. These are known as “binge burners.”
Binge burners leave a trail of blackened buildings and, too often, ruined lives. The fires they set threaten the safety of people in the surrounding neighborhood, injure firefighters, and force residents out into the streets while destroying their treasured possessions.
Take 74-year-old Gerald Eugene Singer. The diminutive landlord burned down nine fixer-upper houses and apartments, mostly in the Muskegon, Mich., area, in a calculated bid to steal more than $700,000 from insurers. Defiant in the face of being accused of bilking insurance companies over the course of his 18-year scheme, Singer saw the federal case against him as “a joke.”
“I laugh about the whole thing,” he told a reporter after being indicted. “I’m 100 percent sure this [case] is going to fall apart.” Unfortunately for Singer, he was 100 percent wrong and received 55 years in a federal prison, which is tantamount to a life sentence for a man of his age.
However, not all arson stories end like Singer’s. Local fire investigators often miss arsons, according to the results of a Scripps News investigation published in November 2013. This raises the question of how many arsons-for-profit slip through safety nets. Scripps examined the records of 1 million building fires reported to the U.S. Fire Administration from 2006 through 2011 and found the following:
- 54,860 fires at “unlucky” buildings that experienced multiple fires, yet none were reported as arson.
- 42,434 fires at buildings in foreclosure, according to the national mortgage monitoring firm RealtyTrac.
- 3,561 fires with multiple points of ignition, suggesting intentionally set fires.
- 77,596 fires in unoccupied or vacant buildings.
Fixer-Uppers Mean Windfalls
Kenneth Allen was a ringleader of possibly the largest serial arson binge in U.S. history. Some 46 members of his arson ring were convicted of torching at least 73 homes and vehicles in Indiana. Before they were stopped, they acquired roughly $3.8 million in insurance proceeds during their 14-year binge.
Allen’s gang members bought cheap fixer-uppers and loaded them with used furniture and secondhand appliances. The gang staged “accidental” fires, leaving old blankets on space heaters or food in frying pans and then walked away. When the houses went up in smoke, the Allen arson squad made huge and often inflated claims against the carriers that insured the properties.
The scheme was finally thwarted when insurance investigators noticed that the same names, including that of an insurance adjuster, popped up in 26 Indianapolis-area arson claims. Once investigators were able to dismantle Allen’s organization, he received four years in federal prison.
Singer followed the same pattern. He bought inexpensive properties, inflated the insurance value of the structures and their contents, and then had his cohorts burn them down, resulting in large windfalls far above his purchase price. Singer also used straw owners and policyholders to hide his ownership. An apartment building and hotel were among Singer’s wrecked buildings. He even burned down the fabric store that his father started and he had worked in for years.
Singer usually hired tenants to burn down the dilapidated and often vacant buildings, leaving them in disrepair while he spent the insurance money on personal pleasure. He would even go so far as to file suit against insurers that denied his claims.
However, his scheme was not without human casualties. A firefighter was injured while quelling one of his blazes, and tenants were left out in the streets when their homes and valued possessions went up in flames.
One victim, Delaina Peters, lived in a rented house in Muskegon Heights, Mich., with her husband and three young children. The children were inside the house with a babysitter when the fire started. Peters and her husband arrived to find their home in flames and surrounded by firefighters, which caused Peters to suffer long-term emotional problems. “For 16 years, we’ve struggled because of what that one day did to our family,” she told a reporter. “You never recover.”
In addition to arson and mail fraud, creative prosecutors convicted Singer of tax fraud because he failed to report the insurance proceeds as income and lied to his own tax preparer. Even though Singer at one point owned more than 370 properties, the defrauded insurers were left with a mere $60,000 deficit.
The Christmas Tree Arsonist
Operation Christmas Tree, conducted by Florida’s Division of Insurance Fraud and others, brought no holiday cheer to Edward “Rocky” Williams. Williams orchestrated fires to look like innocent holiday accidents. He convinced homeowners in the Orlando area to light their Christmas trees on fire in order to burn down their homes. The perpetrators would then split the insurance money with Williams.
In another case, Williams convinced Wayne Eugene Breier to buy a home for the purpose of torching it to the ground. To sweeten the deal, Williams gave Breier and his live-in girlfriend money for living expenses, described as a “line of credit” so the couple could borrow against the expected insurance haul.
Williams instructed the couple to set fire to a Christmas tree, wait 10 or 15 minutes until their clothes smelled of smoke or had soot on them, and then leave at the last possible moment. The appearance of disheveled tenants narrowly escaping the fire would make the arson look more realistic. Williams perpetrated at least three other Christmas tree scams worth a total of $185,000.
Investigators initially thought the fires were accidental but got a break when a tenant was arrested on unrelated charges and confessed to the entire plot. Williams later was convicted of a first-degree felony count of organized fraud and four third-degree felony counts of arson to defraud the insurer.
Insurance arsonists burn up property and sometimes innocent lives. Fortunately, when determined investigators and prosecutors extinguish their schemes and snuff out the flames of fraud, the arsonists end up in one building they cannot burn down: the jailhouse.