UPDATE: Jury Finds Aaron Jones Guilty in Chenal Fire; Defense Says Jones Will Appeal

by Arkansas Business Staff  on Tuesday, Sep. 28, 2010 5:15 pm  

A Little Rock jury finds developer Aaron Jones guilty on four counts in the May 2008 fire that destroyed his west Little Rock home. Jones' attorney, Tim Dudley, said his client will appeal.

Aaron Jones, 34, showed no emotion other than to drop his chin to his chest when an all-woman federal court jury declared him guilty of burning his former home in west Little Rock in 2008 to collect insurance money.

Jones, an attorney, title company owner and real estate developer, was found guilty of three counts of mail fraud and one count of using fire in the commission of a felony. The jury took less than five hours to reach a verdict.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie E. Peters told U.S. District Judge Brian S. Miller that prosecutors believed Jones' case required mandatory detention after conviction "because it's a crime of violence." But defense attorney Tim Dudley asked Miller to give him time to research the law because prosecutors had only informed him about 30 minutes earlier of their intention to have Jones taken into custody immediately.

With no objection from Peters, Miller set a hearing on the question for 10 a.m. Monday, and Jones left the courthouse hand-in-hand with his wife, Abigail.

Dudley told ArkansasBusiness.com that his client would appeal the conviction. Otherwise, he had no comment.

U.S. Attorney Jane Duke praised the work that went into the verdict, which was confirmed individually by the 12 jurors polled by Judge Miller at Dudley's request.

"I'm just very proud of the efforts put forth by the investigating agencies, the Little Rock Fire Department and the prosecutors in the case," Duke told ArkansasBusiness.com.

Using fire to commit insurance fraud, Duke said, inflates the price of insurance for all consumers "and subjects first responders to the risk of injury or death. It's a serious offense, and we treat it seriously."

Facing Fines, Time in Federal Prison

Federal prosecutors had said that Jones caused the blaze at his 5,757-SF Chenal Valley home during the wee hours of May 30, 2008, to get shed of a house he couldn't afford or sell. Jones had also been charged with arson, but that charge was dropped before the trial began.

Mail fraud carries a possible sentence of up to 25 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine. Use of fire in commission of a federal felony of no less than 10 years, but no greater than life, in federal prison.

The case came to an offbeat conclusion earlier Tuesday, with Jones' defense talking about Jones' urine-soaked shorts during closing arguments.

"If Aaron Jones set that fire himself, why would he pee in his pants?" Jones' lead defense attorney, Tim Dudley, said. "You pee in your pants because you're scared to death. Those pair of shorts speak more to what happened that night than the witnesses in this case."

Other arguments in the case centered on whether Jones was really in money trouble at the time of the fire.

The jury retired at about 12:45 p.m. to consider a verdict. It returned to the courtroom at about 5 p.m., and was dismissed by 5:10 p.m.

Prosecutors and insurance investigators didn't believe Jones' account of one or more armed intruders breaking into his home, binding him hand and foot in his bed and setting the fire that could have killed him had he not been able to hop to a neighbor's house for help.

Monetary gain in the midst of financial adversity was the catalyst behind the alleged crimes, according to the government's case, which began Sept. 20.

After the fire, Jones made a $2.9 million loss claim to Standard Fire Insurance Co. of Hartford, Conn.

The company grudgingly paid off the home's $1.2 million first mortgage held by Countrywide Home Loans of Calabasas, Calif. But Standard Fire would not cover the claim for personal property loss, citing its belief that Jones caused the fire.

That claim was rejected in a certified letter dated March, 27, 2009.



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