Anderson's role in the Hereford House and that fire are set to be unraveled this week as he and two accused co-conspirators, Vincent Pisciotta and Mark A. Sorrentino, stand trial in courtoom 8-D of the Charles Evans Whittaker U.S. Courthouse. Each man is charged with four counts of felony fraud, conspiracy and arson. The prosecution alleges that the men planned and executed the arson that destroyed the original Hereford House restaurant, at 2 East 20th Street, in the early morning hours of October 20, 2008.
The seated jury, predominantly white and female, listened this afternoon to opening arguments, presided over by U.S. Judge Dean Whipple.
U.S. Attorney Jess Michaelson used several large charts and diagrams of the downtown Hereford House interior to explain how Anderson allegedly met with Pisciotta and Sorretino on September 27, 2008 — giving them a tour of the restaurant, a key to the building, and an access code to disarm the security alarm. Several weeks later, three suspects — seen in grainy surveillance videos — brought 14 plastic jugs, each filled with 5 gallons of gasoline, into the building. Michaelson said the videotapes survived because an eyewitness — a nurse driving past the restaurant on her way home — was stopped at the intersection of 20th and Main and heard a "gutteral rumbling" before an explosion. She pulled over and dialed 911.
The reason for the arson, according to Michaelson's opening argument, is that Anderson was heavily in debt and "out of options."
"Rod Anderson had a dream, a vision," Michaelson said, "of what he wanted a new downtown Hereford House to look like."
Anderson, he went on, wanted to build a new restaurant on the property to compete with the new dining venues in the nearby Power & Light District.
Anderson's attorney, J.R. Hobbs, dismissed that argument in his opening statement, saying that there had been a proposed project to sell both the Hereford House building and the adjacent structure, the Midwest Hotel, as a package deal, and there had been no plans to renovate the 55-year-old property.
Hobbs also showed a diagram depicting Anderson's decreasing ownership share of the downtown venue, from 45 percent in 1988 to 2 percent prior to the 2008 fire. (Anderson's stake in other restaurants in the local Hereford House was higher, including 100 percent ownership of the Lawrence operation, which closed over two years ago, and a major percentage of Pierpont's in Union Station.)
"Collecting insurance from the downtown restaurant would not, and did not, solve the financial issues of the Lawrence restaurant," Hobbs said. He added that Anderson frequently gave tours of the Hereford House building to potential investors in the restaurant or those interested in the proposed package deal to buy most of the block at 20th and Main.
The videos — showing what prosecutors say is Anderson allegedly meeting with Pisciotta and Sorrentino on September 27, 2008, and the arsonist in the building on the night of the fire — make up the centerpiece of the prosecution's case and the defense. Mark Sorrentino's attorney, in his opening statement, noted the indistinct characteristics of the men labeled Suspect One, Suspect Two and Suspect Three: "These are low-resolution videos. The men on them could be countless untold people. The only complete image could be any one of tens of thousands of people."
Anderson, wearing a charcoal suit and a gray tie, looked pale and nervous during much of today's proceedings. The trial continues tomorrow.