Stupid Arsonist Convicted by Circumstantial Evidence

To Succeed at Arson-for-Profit Takes Skill and Intelligence

To successfully commit an arson-for-profit it is necessary to buy sufficient insurance, set a fire to occur when the arsonist has an alibi, leave no evidence of an intentionally set fire, and make a reasonable claim based upon the property actually destroyed. In State of Ohio v. Rickey Lamb, Jr., Court of Appeals No. F-17-002, 2018 Ohio 3089, Court Of Appeals Of Ohio Sixth Appellate District Fulton County (August 3, 2018) Ricky Lamb, Jr. proved he did not have the ability to fulfill the needs of a successful arson-for-profit.

Rickey T. Lamb, Jr., was found guilty of aggravated arson, insurance fraud, grand theft, communications fraud, and falsification in a theft.  He appealed to the appellate court to avoid jail.

FACTS

Aaron and Sarah Klopfenstein purchased a home at 104 Ash Street, Lyons, Fulton County, Ohio, as an investment property (the “Ash Street home”). On August 30, 2014, Lamb and his wife, Desteny Lamb, entered into a one-year lease agreement for the Ash Street home.

On December 22, 2014, Mr. Klopfenstein received a text message from Lamb indicating that the home’s utility room “smelled like natural gas.” Lamb indicated that he hired a “gas contractor” to check for leaks, but the contractor could not find any. So, they “aired out” the utility room. Mr. Klopfenstein offered to have his plumbing and heating contractor check for a leak, but Lamb indicated that the visit was not necessary; Lamb had purchased a “detector” and felt “safe.” At trial, Mr. Klopfenstein testified that the Lambs never asserted any other complaints about the condition of the Ash Street home.

The Man who Called 911

Scott Westbrook is the general manager of Aarons Sales and Lease, a rent-to-own company located in Wauseon, Ohio. On January 3, 2015, at approximately 5:20 p.m., Mr. Westbrook was driving north toward Lyons on County Road 10-3 when he noticed a red or maroon SUV driving recklessly in a southerly direction. He was approximately one mile outside of the Lyons city limits. When he arrived in Lyons moments later, Mr. Westbrook observed “flames coming out of the side of [a] house.” It was Lamb’s Ash Street home. Mr. Westbrook grabbed his phone and called 911.

News of the Fire and the Lambs Reaction to It

When the Lambs arrived at the house on the day of the fire, Lamb told firefighters that he had $20,000 in a metal box on the second floor in or near a dresser. Lamb also told firefighters that he had a number of firearms in the Ash Street home. Once the fire was under control, two firefighters searched the upstairs bedroom for Lamb’s metal box. They were unable to locate it.

Lamb’s Interactions with a Nationwide Insurance Adjustor

Tricia Huberty is employed as an adjustor at Nationwide Insurance. During an in-person interview, Lamb informed Ms. Huberty that, as a self-employed contractor, he made $82,000 in 2013 and $77,000 in 2014. He also informed Ms. Huberty that his wife and children were receiving Medicaid and “food stamps” and failed to mention that he earned too much to qualify for Medicaid.

Ms. Huberty read to the jury the extensive list of household and personal items the Lamb family claimed to have lost in the fire. The list included, $29,163 worth of Hallmark cards; $2,110 worth of DVDs; a $2,499 sectional sofa; a $2,000 Rolex; $3,000 worth of school books; a $6,000 camera; a $1,200 pressure washer; a $799 fridge; a $499 stove; a $200 washer; a $200 dryer; a $400 kayak; a $2,700 Vera Wang wedding dress; numerous guns; a $5,599 ring; $20,000 cash; and numerous other items. Lamb’s claimed losses totaled $110,000.

Shortly after the in-person interview, Ms. Huberty obtained a credit report and discovered that the Lambs had recently gone through bankruptcy. She also discovered that the fire occurred less than six months after the policy’s effective date. The presence of these indicators required Ms. Huberty to forward the file to Nationwide’s Special Investigative Unit.

Nationwide’s Special Investigative Unit

Christopher Lease is a special investigator for Nationwide’s Special Investigative Unit. Mr. Lease conducted two interviews with Lamb and attended Lamb’s examination under oath. All three events were recorded and transcribed.

During the examination, Lamb stated that he never informed Mr. Klopfenstein about the problems he was having with the breakers. He insisted that his rent had been paid through April 2015.

Robert Moody’s Investigation

Robert Moody is a fire investigator employed by Nederveld Engineering. He was retained by Nationwide Insurance, to conduct an “origin and cause” investigation at the Ash Street home.

After interviewing Lamb Mr. Moody began a physical examination of both the inside and the outside of the fire-damaged structure. Mr. Moody testified that they found what appeared to be remnants from a space heater and a single magazine to a small caliber hand gun. When Mr. Moody went to the upstairs bedroom, he found no evidence of the $20,000 in cash and no evidence of any other guns. The bedroom contents had suffered soot damage, most of the personal effects were not damaged by flame and were all readily identifiable.

VERDICT

The jury convicted Lamb on all but one count charged. At the sentencing hearing, Lamb was ordered to serve a term of six years in prison on Count 2, eleven months in prison on Count 4, eleven months in prison on Count 5, eleven months in prison on Count 6, and eleven months in prison on Count 7. The sentences were ordered to be served concurrently. The trial court also ordered Lamb to pay $8,381.07 in restitution to the State Fire Marshall’s Office and $18,500 in restitution to Nationwide Insurance.

ANALYSIS

One is qualified as an expert witness so as to properly provide expert testimony if the testimony provided exceeds the knowledge or experience possessed by a layperson, possesses specialized knowledge, skill, experience, training and education regarding the subject matter, and the testimony is based upon reliable specialized information.

Robert Moody is a fire investigator employed by Nederveld Engineering. Mr. Moody was qualified to testify as an expert fire investigator because of his specialized knowledge, skill, and experience regarding the subject matter.

It is clear that the experience and training of the expert witnesses who testified qualify them to testify as expert witnesses at trial. Each testified extensively as to their training and experience. Each were cross-examined on their opinions, methods, and observations.

The assumptions the arson investigator made when categorizing the fire as “incendiary” were based on his experience as a fire investigator and unique facts in the record. There is evidence that Lamb left his home no more than 20 minutes before a driver passing through town called 911 to report the fire. Also, a copy of Lamb’s phone bill was presented to the jury. The phone bill shows that calls were made between Lamb and his wife at the same time the two of them—according to Lamb’s timeline—were traveling to Toledo in the same vehicle

There was no direct evidence that Lamb intentionally started the fire. However, that deficiency does not preclude an arson conviction. The courts have consistently noted that arson prosecutions rely heavily on circumstantial evidence.

Much of the evidence produced at trial focused on the fraudulent insurance claim Lamb submitted to Nationwide Insurance. The state presented sufficient circumstantial evidence of Lamb’s guilt on the aggravated arson charge.

Lamb made numerous inconsistent statements to investigators on a number of topics. Lamb also made conflicting statements to others about when he discovered and to what extent he believed the fire was covered by insurance. Furthermore, Lamb’s statements about when he discovered and reported the cracks in the gas line were inconsistent with his wife’s testimony about when the cracks were discovered and reported.

It is clear from the evidence that Lamb had both a motive and an opportunity to start the fire. Lamb and his wife were experiencing financial difficulties. In 2013, Lamb and his wife filed Chapter 7 Bankruptcy. At the time of the fire, Lamb’s wife and children were receiving public assistance. Just days before the fire, Lamb indicated he would be late in making his $700 rent payment for January 2015 although  he claimed he had $20,000 in cash in the house. Lamb’s tenant insurance went into effect 64 days before the fire that destroyed the Ash Street home. Lamb’s wife testified that they purposely inflated the replacement value of their possessions.

A reasonable fact finder could have inferred, and found beyond a reasonable doubt, that Lamb set the fire that destroyed the Ash Street home. This is not the exceptional case in which the jury lost its way and created a manifest miscarriage of justice.

ZALMA OPINION

Lamb simply lacked the skill to succeed at a complex fraud scheme. He did not have the assets to support his claimed earnings and claimed loss because of the bankruptcy less than two years before the fire, he claimed a Rolex that would have reasonably gone to the bankruptcy trustee. He was the last at the house and did a fairly sloppy job of setting the fire, even leaving a match near the point of origin and claiming loss of cash from a room not damaged by the fire. He belongs in jail since his actions could have killed or injured neighbors or firefighters if a passer-by had not reported the fire shortly after it started.


© 2018 – Barry Zalma

This article, and all of the blog posts on this site, digest and summarize cases published by courts of the various states and the United States.  The court decisions have been modified from the actual language of the court decisions, were condensed for ease of reading, and convey the opinions of the author regarding each case.

Barry Zalma, Esq., CFE, now limits his practice to service as an insurance consultant  specializing in insurance coverage, insurance claims handling, insurance bad faith and insurance fraud almost equally for insurers and policyholders. He also serves as an arbitrator or mediator for insurance related disputes. He practiced law in California for more than 44 years as an insurance coverage and claims handling lawyer and more than 50 years in the insurance business. He is available at http://www.zalma.com and zalma@zalma.com.

Mr. Zalma is the first recipient of the first annual Claims Magazine/ACE Legend Award.

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About Barry Zalma

An insurance coverage and claims handling author, consultant and expert witness with more than 48 years of practical and court room experience.
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