Tracy Smith, the owner of the Red Steer in Turlock, and his cousin, Jeremy Britt, a one time employee of the eatery, will have to stand trial on charges that they set the fire that caused the closure of the popular eatery.
On Wednesday, Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Marie Sovey Silveira ruled there was enough evidence and probable cause presented during a preliminary hearing to hold both men over for trial. Smith is facing an arson charge, while Britt is charged with aggravated arson, because he has a prior conviction for the same offense. In 2005, Britt pled no contest in Kern County to arson for setting his ex-girlfriend’s car on fire.
Smith also is facing additional charges of passing checks with insufficient funds and has been named in multiple small claims cases.
Following the judge’s ruling, Smith waived his right to a preliminary hearing on the bad check charges and agreed to have them trail his arson charge.
The Red Steer sustained significant structural damage from a fire on May 28, 2009 and the doors have remained shuttered ever since. A banner proclaiming the restaurant would return long ago fluttered to the ground and weeds have sprung up all around the vacant building.
A follow-up investigation into the fire by the Turlock police and fire departments revealed the fire originated in the attic and that an accelerant was used.
Turlock Fire Department Capt. Jason Bernard testified earlier in the preliminary hearing that there was a strong odor of gasoline in the restaurant and that multiple samples were collected throughout the restaurant that tested positive for a flammable liquid.
The prosecution’s case against the two men claims Smith was motivated to set the restaurant on fire because he was heavily in debt and wanted to collect the insurance money. Deputy District Attorney Samual Getrich said Britt helped his cousin set the fire because “blood is thicker than water.”
During the hearing Detective Jason Tosta testified he found Smith was under a mountain of debt, “well in excess of $1 million.”
Tosta also testified that during an interview 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.
Smith’s defense attorney Alexandria Carl argued he had no financial benefit for setting the restaurant on fire because the majority of the $1.1 million insurance payout would have gone to the mortgage companies.
The last witness to testify at Wednesday’s hearing was Detective Sergio Perez, who interviewed the owners of businesses around the Red Steer in regards to video surveillance. Getrich had previously presented evidence that on the day before the fire, both Smith and Britt questioned other business owners in the area if they used security cameras.
Perez testified that three individuals picked Britt out of a photo line-up as one of the individuals asking about the security cameras.
Kirk McCallister, Britt’s defense attorney, argued the line-up was faulty because the individuals could have recognized Britt from his working at the restaurant. He also said Britt was asking about the video surveillance because his vehicle had been broken into and he was looking for evidence as to the identity of the culprit. A police report confirmed Britt’s vehicle was broken into 53 days before the fire.
The two men are scheduled for an arraignment on the arson charges on April 26. Both are currently out on bail.
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