By Matthew Hendley
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Armed with details about the purchase of gas cans by Otto and Murillo, police called in the pair for a chat on June 23. They drove to the police station together. Phoenix police Detective Audrey Santisi interviewed Murillo first. At the outset, she would say only that she had been with Otto and Antonucci the night of the fire. They had watched Liar, Liar together while worrying why Robinson had disappeared before his planned trip to Utah, Murillo said.
Murillo acknowledged hearing rumors around the office that Antonucci and Robinson were suspected of embezzling from the firm.
Then came Otto's turn. He talked about the embezzlement investigation, too, telling Santisi that Antonucci admitted to him that he'd stolen $600 from Young Champions. Otto said Robinson, on the other hand, "never took a single dime" from the company.
Otto told Santisi that, a week before the fire, Robinson and Antonucci were "joking" that if they burned down the building, it would "erase everything."
During the same conversation, Otto claimed, Antonucci talked about his contract's anti-competition clause and "was making comments of how he would like to bring YCOA down or take YCOA out, for the sake of his business. Jeff interpreted this as that Jon's business would be dominant over YCOA."
Otto also talked of buying the gas cans with the other instructors. Murillo hadn't mentioned that part, but Otto admitted buying one of the cans when re-interviewed by Santisi.
The two remained free for about two weeks — until fire officials recovered the digital video file from the surveillance camera. McCue told the pair to come back in for another interview, which they did on July 5. She showed Murillo a still image from the video that shows three people, including the burning Robinson, on the awning.
Murillo cracked. In tears, she confessed to helping plan and execute the arson. After police took her into custody, they found the receipt for one of the gas cans in her purse, as if she'd been keeping it as a memento.
McCue says Otto stuck to his story. At the end of an hours-long interview, she pulled out the video image. She pointed at one of the people in the picture. The face wasn't visible, but the figure had Otto's build. "That's you," she told him.
"I think I need a lawyer," Otto said, before invoking his right to remain silent.
McCue says she later discovered one piece of hard evidence against Otto: Cell phone records show he sent a text message from the fire scene, just after midnight on June 14.
Why Otto and Murillo decided to help their friends commit arson still isn't clear.
They might have fallen for what police believe was the poorly considered plan by Antonucci and Robinson to erase evidence of their embezzlement and clear the path for Antonucci's business — where they were considering working.
As it turned out, the hard drive of a computer containing the instructors' records — and, therefore, potential proof of the schemes — was recovered intact by authorities. On top of that, Antonucci's paperwork already had been copied and passed on to police.
The company had proof of Antonucci's and Robinson's thefts, but not Otto's and Murillo's.
Hollingworth says it's possible the two also were stealing from the company, which could have meant they, too, wanted to destroy records. He tells New Times it would take time to go through the data to figure out whether Otto and Murillo pocketed class fees. He says he won't bother now because the point is moot.
McCue says Otto and Murillo's involvement is, perhaps, the oddest aspect of the case. The investigator has been able to find no evidence of a motive for their engaging in the arson, beyond a strong friendship with the more-experienced instructors. Even romance didn't enter in: McCue says Murillo was attracted to Otto, but the two weren't dating.
"They had nothing to gain. Nothing," says McCue. "They came to a cross in the road — they had to make a choice. Are you going to do the right thing or go along with your buddies?"
Wearing stripes and pink long underwear in an interview room in the Fourth Avenue Jail in downtown Phoenix, the minister's son is nervous — but cocky. He's lanky, about six feet tall. A detention officer later tells New Times that Jonathan Antonucci is creating a reputation for himself as a jailhouse preacher.
During an interview, Antonucci peppers his conversation with Bible quotes. He tries to compare himself to Kings David and Solomon, who sinned mightily yet "always came back to what they were taught."
Despite his professed religious beliefs, some of Antonucci's statements to New Times contradict what he told police. And despite his pleading guilty to manslaughter and arson, Antonucci maintains he's guilty of neither.
"The biggest reason I was there was that I was going along to try to stop them," Antonucci claims. "Somebody told me that maybe, somewhere deep down in my subconscious, I wanted it to happen. I don't believe that's true. I really don't. But if it is, I know it's no longer true."