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Former Turlock restaurant owner guilty of arson
Jeremy Britt
Jeremy Britt entered a no contest plea to the arson charges stemming from the 2009 fire at the Red Steer. He was sentenced to 180 days in jail. - photo by Photo Contributed

The one-time owner of the Red Steer in Turlock has been convicted of arson for the fire that destroyed the popular eatery five years ago.

Tracy Smith and his cousin Jeremy Britt both entered no contest pleas to the arson charges against them stemming from the 2009 fire at the Red Steer. The pleas were entered just as the jury trial for the two men was scheduled to begin Tuesday.

After entering their pleas, both men were found guilty. Britt had been facing a charge of aggravated arson because of a prior conviction. In 2005, Britt pled no contest in Kern County to arson for setting his ex-girlfriend’s car on fire.

Both men were sentenced to 180 days in jail for the fire, according to the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office. They also were ordered to register as arsonists for the rest of their lives and will have to pay restitution, the amount of which has not been determined as of yet.

The prosecution said Smith was motivated to set the restaurant on fire because he was heavily in debt and wanted to collect the insurance money. He recruited his cousin Britt, who also was an employee at the restaurant, to help him.

Early on the morning of May 28, 2009, a street sweeper noticed smoke billowing from the Red Steer restaurant at 203 S. Golden State Blvd. The first Turlock Fire Department crews to arrive on scene found the attic of the building engulfed in flames. The fire ended up causing significant damage to the restaurant, including a partial collapse of the roof.

During a preliminary hearing for the two men, Turlock Fire Department Capt. Jason Bernard testified there was a strong odor of gasoline present inside the building. Bernard testified that he found at least nine sites in the restaurant and attic that tested positive for gasoline. He also testified the point of origin was traced to the attic.

A review of all the major appliances in the restaurant ruled out an electrical fire, Bernard testified.

Both Smith and Britt told investigators they had been doing some construction work in the restaurant prior to the fire and that the fire alarm had been damaged.

The day before the fire Britt and Smith questioned other business owners in the area if they used surveillance cameras. Britt allegedly told the business owners he was asking because his vehicle had been broken into. A police report of an auto burglary had been reported by Britt 53 days prior to the fire.

During the preliminary hearing Turlock Police Detective Jason Tosta testified he found Smith was under a mountain of debt, “well in excess of $1 million.”

Tosta testified that during an interview after the fire Smith told him that numerous payroll checks from the restaurant had bounced and that he was “bleeding it dry” in an effort to save his framing company, which was struggling with the tanking housing market.

Tosta stated he had spoken to a couple of vendors and business owners who said they were owed substantial amounts of money from Smith and/or the Red Steer. One food company owner told Tosta that Smith owed him $58,000 and that his food was only deliverable by cash payments, plus an additional $1,000 payment. The day before the fire the food was not delivered because the money was not there, Tosta said.

Suspicions about Smith’s involvement in setting the fire grew when investigators learned he was seeking an early pay-out on the establishment. The insurance company representative told Tosta that was “absurd” because Smith would get far less money than if he just waited for his settlement.

From the day of the fire, the Red Steer, which had been a long-time favorite of Turlock residents, sat vacant until it was eventually torn down. The lot remains available for lease. Months after the fire in Turlock Smith opened a Red Steer in downtown Modesto. It moved locations shortly after opening and then closed down permanently a short time later.

Smith is still facing criminal charges related to check fraud. He also has had several civil lawsuits filed against him, the majority of which were from individuals and businesses seeking payment for services or goods.

Smith is currently the chief executive officer of Consolidated Reliance, a Turlock-based development company. The business, which was launched last year, states they have set a five year goal to build “200 high quality low-income housing units in Stanislaus County.” The company is the listed owner for 146 N. Golden State Blvd., the large two-story lot with multiple business spaces, including the old home of Jura’s Pizza Parlor at the corner of Golden State and Olive Avenue. Consolidated Reliance’s website states it wants to refurbish the building so that the first floor would be home to four businesses and the second floor would be converted into eight apartments. The company also owns property in Modesto and Riverbank.