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Red Steer co-owner arrested for arson

Search warrant reveals litany of debts, federal probe

Red Steer co-owner arrested for arson

Tracy Smith


POSTED July 17, 2009 10:41 p.m.
The co-owner of the Red Steer restaurant and his cousin, who was also an employee at the eatery, were arrested on Wednesday by Turlock Police detectives on suspicion of starting the fire that gutted the popular Turlock establishment.
Tracy Smith, 27, and Jeremy Britt, 23, both of Turlock were taken into custody around 3:30 p.m. Wednesday. Smith, who co-owns and operated the eatery, is charged with arson with the criminal enhancement of using an accelerant, according to Deputy District Attorney Alan Cassidy. Britt was charged with aggravated arson, because of a prior conviction. He also had the enhancement of using an accelerant, Cassidy said.
The investigation into the fire has turned up a tangled web of debts, a federal inquiry, and a penchant for arson among the two suspects.
According to a search warrant written by Turlock Police Detective Jason Tosta, Smith had several financial motives to burn down the restaurant, including being more than $1 million in debt.
In the search warrant, Tosta said he contacted numerous creditors of Smith and the Red Steer and that all of them reported being owed “significant amounts of money to their companies,” and that Smith was past due on several accounts.
Logged in the search warrant are a list of creditors and debts that Smith or the Red Steer owed, including: The state equalization board, which was owed more than $101,000; two mortgage holders reporting debts of more than $712,000 and $82,000; tax boards from the state and county claiming more than $42,000; and the City of Turlock was owed $1,400.
One company, J & D Foods, Inc., told investigators Smith had bounced so many checks that he was restricted to cash only transactions. In the search warrant, the company reported that the day before the fire a food order was taken back because neither Smith nor the cash were available.
It was revealed during the investigation that Smith is being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office for investment frauds, “where he and his associates fraudulently obtained money from several victims in excess of $800,000,” according to the search warrant.
An insurance policy for the restaurant would have paid out as much as $500,000 for the building and contents and up to $600,000 for lost business income.
The fire at the restaurant was reported at 3:20 a.m. on May 28 by a passerby who saw smoke rising from the eatery. When the first engine from the Turlock City Fire Department arrived at the 203 S. Golden State Blvd. restaurant moments later, the attic was already engulfed in flames, according to Battalion Chief Marc St. Pierre.
The flames caused significant damage to the upper portion of the structure, causing a section of the roof to collapse into the restaurant.
The search warrant revealed that the fire started in the attic and that several points of origin were found. Tosta wrote that a strong odor of gasoline was present at the site.
Eight samples were collected and sent to the Department of Justice’s crime lab for analysis. All eight came back positive for the presence of gasoline and an ignitable liquid. Two private arson investigators hired by the insurance company also tested samples and came back with the same results, adding that the ignitable liquid had the same chemicals as charcoal starters, copier fluids, and paint thinners.
As the investigation proceeded, detectives and the fire department learned of some suspicious behavior from Smith and Britt.
According to the search warrant, the night before the fire Britt “accidentally” broke out a glass perimeter door, which was covered over with plywood and Smith “accidentally” broke an alarm sensor and didn’t set the alarm that night.
Employees of the restaurant recalled Smith and Britt were up in the attic the night before the fire, saying they had to remove some water from the air conditioning units, as reported in the search warrant.
Three individuals from the surrounding businesses told investigators they were approached by Smith and Britt days before the fire to ask if anyone used surveillance cameras. According to what was written in the search warrant, the two men told the individuals they were asking about cameras because Britt’s car had been broken into the night before.
Tosta said Britt had filed a report with the Turlock Police Department for an auto theft, but that it was 53 days before the fire.
When asked about his questioning of his business neighbors, Smith told investigators, “I don’t know, I haven’t talked to them about it, but that’s a good idea though.”
According to the search warrant, Britt’s statements to investigators contradicted Smith’s about the cameras and about being in the attic prior to the fire.
Wednesday’s arrest was not the first time Britt has been the target of an arson investigation. In 2004 he was arrested for setting fire to his ex-girlfriend’s car in Kern County. He pled no contest in 2005, and was sentenced to one year and four months in state prison. His parole ended 25 days after the Red Steer fire. According to the search warrant, Britt was also a suspect in another arson fire, but charges were never filed.
Smith and his father-in-law, Scott Soiseth, became co-owners of the Red Steer in May 2007. They have a second location in Modesto that was supposed to open in June, but still remains closed.
To contact Sabra Stafford, e-mail sstafford@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2002.

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