Almost five years after a popular Turlock eatery burned to the ground, the owner and his cousin will go on trial for arson.
A Stanislaus County Superior Court judge scheduled the trial for Tracy Smith and Jeremy Britt to begin Sept. 30. The two cousins are accused of starting the fire that left the Red Steer in ashes in May 2009.
This is not the first time a trial date has been set, but a series of delays that expanded over a year’s time and an additional arrest kept pushing it further back.
The Red Steer sustained significant structural damage from a fire on May 28, 2009. 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.
The prosecution’s case against the two men claims Smith, who owned the restaurant with family, was motivated to set the eatery on fire because he was heavily in debt and wanted to collect the insurance money. At the time of the fire Smith was in debt well in excess of $1 million, according to court records.
On July 15, 2009, Smith was charged with arson and Britt was charged with aggravated arson because of a previous arson conviction in Kern County. Smith also is facing additional charges of passing checks with insufficient funds and has been named in multiple small claims cases.
During the preliminary hearing in 2011, Turlock Police Detective Jason Tosta 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.
During separate interviews with the detective, both Smith and Britt said they had been working at the restaurant hours before the fire was reported and that the alarm was damaged during their work.
Deputy District Attorney Samual Getrich presented evidence during the preliminary hearing that on the day before the fire both Smith and Britt had been questioning other business owners in the area if they used surveillance cameras. Both men were picked out of photo line-ups. Britt allegedly told the business owners he was asking because his vehicle had been broken into. Tosta testified an auto burglary report had been made for Britt 53 days prior to the fire.
At the end of the preliminary hearing, a judge ordered both men be held over for trial. After a formal arraignment, a trial date was set for Feb. 21, 2012. The trial date was postponed when Smith’s attorney went out on an extended maternity leave and then was set back even further when Smith was charged with five felony counts of obtaining money/etc. by false pretenses, according to court records.
The charges stem back to 2007 and allege Smith and Manuel Arroyo fraudulently obtained $800,000 from a 69-year-old Turlock woman for an investment opportunity that never materialized.
The charges have since been dismissed against Smith, but remain open against Arroyo, according to court records.
While awaiting trial Smith has launched Consolidated Reliance, a company that according to its web site has the “sole purpose of identifying undervalued properties and businesses, acquiring them, and capitalizing on such opportunities…”