Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Hereford House arson case is in the jury's hands now

Posted By on Tue, Oct 30, 2012 at 6:27 PM

Someone burned down the Hereford House restaurant four years ago -- who was it?
  • Someone burned down the Hereford House restaurant four years ago — who was it?

A man with short-cropped hair leaned over the back of the bench in the public seating section of courtroom 8-D of the Charles Evans Whittaker U.S. Courthouse and whispered to the man in the seat in front of him: "I can't help it. Every time I look at Rod Anderson, I think of Rodney Dangerfield."

Rod Anderson
  • Rod Anderson
Rod Anderson — on trial with co-defendants Vincent Pisciotta and Mark Sorrentino — would have cringed if he had heard this. This last week has probably been the least funny period in his 59 years. The former high-profile public face of the Hereford House restaurants, Anderson has gained weight and looks a decade older since he was first charged with felony fraud, conspiracy and arson. The prosecution alleges that Anderson, Pisciotta and Sorrentino 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.

Today, the defense attorneys for Anderson, Pisciotta and Sorrentino presented their closing arguments to the jury, lambasting the case against their clients presented by the team of U.S. government attorneys, including Jess Michaelson and Paul Becker. Pettlon said the government's charges against Anderson, Pisciotta and Sorrentino was "a case about innuendo."

The government's star witness, Mark Sorrentino's ex-wife, Jenifer Sorrentino, was "attacked quite viciously," according to Becker, during the closing arguments, called at various times during the afternoon "a liar" and a "paid witness." (Jenifer Sorrentino did, in fact, collect the $10,000 reward offered for information leading to the prosecution of her ex-husband and co-defendants.)

"This case is all smoke and mirrors," said Pisciotta's attorney, Larry Pace. Sorrentino's attorney, N. Trey Pettlon III, used a similar metaphor in his final arguments: "Where there's smoke, there's fire," Pettlon said. "And I'm not talking about the Hereford House fire in 2008. I'm talking about the government's case against my client."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Becker did create a compelling scenario: a financially strapped restaurateur "out of options" and needing the $2.4 million insurance payout conspiring with two men — allegedly Pisciotta and Sorrentino — to burn down the 55-year-old dining venue on October 20, 2008. Anderson, argued Becker, told multiple stories about the three suspects — who had a key to the restaurant and a former employee's alarm code — captured on the surveillance tapes of October 20, 2008.

"He said it was men delivering hot [stolen] stoves," said Becker in his rebuttal to the closing arguments. "He said it was an investor, and then there was the 'I don't know the guy' story. Now, at the end of the trial, we have no story. Innocent people don't make up stories."

Anderson sat impassively during the arguments, his brow furrowed. The courtroom was packed with onlookers, including members of Sorrentino's and Pisciotta's families.

The defense argued that the grainy, dark surveillance footage from the restaurant was inconclusive evidence, and disputed the government's argument that Sorrentino's stocky, heavy body made him easy to identify on the tapes. His ex-wife was one of the few witnesses to view the tapes and positively identify him as "Suspect #2."

"There are hundreds of men with that body shape," Pettlon said. "Does anyone know the obesity rate in the United States?" Well, in Kansas City, the rate is pretty high — but maybe not high enough to sway the jury.

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