This story is about firefighters who morphed into arsonists, an insurance company that wasn't a "good neighbor," and a Peoria couple whose dream house was reduced to rubble.

It is an ongoing saga in which just about everyone involved, even arson victims Betty and Mike Johnson, have something to answer for.

It has been more than seven years since a gasoline-accelerated fire destroyed the Johnsons' nearly finished 8,000-square-foot home on North 87th Avenue in north Peoria.

Betty and Mike Johnson at the site of what was supposed to be their dream home.
Jamie Peachey
Betty and Mike Johnson at the site of what was supposed to be their dream home.
The December 2003 fire destroyed the new
home of Peoria residents Betty and Mike
The December 2003 fire destroyed the new home of Peoria residents Betty and Mike Johnson.
Joe Avey (left) and Chris Bishop
Joe Avey (left) and Chris Bishop
Santa Claus, as played in 2009 by Peoria
firefighter Robert Brewster.
Santa Claus, as played in 2009 by Peoria firefighter Robert Brewster.

But the injustices stemming from the outrageous events of December 20, 2003, hardly have faded from memory.

The wrongs include how a powerful insurance company's working in concert with Maricopa County sheriff's detectives to try to force the Johnsons — initially suspected as the arsonists — into financial submission.

On a parallel front, this story also considers the frustrating inability of law enforcement to bring to justice the alleged ringleader of the high-profile arson case.

That was Robert Brewster, a strapping Peoria firefighter whose hatred of Betty Johnson over a long-standing construction-contract dispute (Brewster ran a concrete firm on the side) was no secret.

Two Phoenix firefighters convicted and imprisoned for torching the Johnsons' home confessed to authorities that Brewster paid them a paltry $250 each for their efforts.

The pair, Joe Avey and Darryl Lanning, admitted to breaking into the empty house, pouring gasoline in its 2,000-square-foot basement, and igniting it before fleeing into the predawn darkness.

They claimed to be jacked up on methamphetamine at the time.

Another Phoenix firefighter, Chris Bishop, was the getaway driver.

The men said Brewster hired them to exact revenge on Betty Johnson, who, he later told police, had stiffed him for about $10,000, an unpaid debt that he claimed put him out of business.

But Robert Brewster, who declined to comment for this story, was able to evade the jaws of justice.

Court records show that he asserted his right against self-incrimination after the arson case broke open in April 2004. In 2008, Brewster took the Fifth during litigation brought by the Johnsons against State Farm Insurance, on the ground that his answers might be used against him in court.

On a recent Saturday morning, Betty and Mike Johnson are visiting the cavernous burned-out shell of what was supposed to be their dream home.

It is a sunny day, and the Johnsons' two youngest daughters, 15-year-old twins Krystal and Taylor, have come along on their bicycles.

Betty Johnson describes how she and her husband of 30 years saved up for the home-building project.

"No mortgage, no construction loan, everything paid for in cash," she says. "We were the general builders, and we did a lot ourselves. We knew it wasn't going to be easy, and it wasn't. But we really wanted it for us and our five daughters."

About all that is left of the structure are the concrete slabs that Robert Brewster poured years ago. The place looks like a bomb hit it. The site remains fenced in on a 2½-acre lot in a neighborhood that retains a rural feel.

A few feet from a block wall that runs along the south edge of the property is a freestanding garage built to hold the Johnsons' RV. It was undamaged in the fire.

The garage is notable because its unusual size blocked a neighbor's view of nearby Sunrise Mountain. That was one cause of the strife between the Johnsons and those would-have-been neighbors, Patrick and Linda Bolley.

Like the arsonists, Pat Bolley, is a Phoenix firefighter, but authorities never found evidence that he knew ahead of time about the arson plot.

The Johnsons gaze down into the exposed basement, where the arsonists set the intense fire with their jugs of gasoline, flares, and matches.

It wasn't a typical cellar. Rather, it was a home within a home that was to have included a second master suite and a recreation room. The house had six bedrooms, 4½ baths, and a five-car garage.

The couple operates a small firm that specializes in rehabbing other people's homes. But, for various reasons, they have not yet pulled together their own reconstruction project.

Mike Johnson, as soft-spoken as his wife is chatty, looks up from the abyss.

"This will rise out of the ashes — someday" is all he can manage.

State Farm assessed the replacement value of the residence — the actual structure — at $542,000, a figure much lower than it would have been if the Johnsons had not acted as their own builders and if the home had not been underinsured by a company agent.

State Farm issued the Johnsons a check for about that amount in mid-2004 after the company was forced to admit that the couple hadn't been involved in burning down their house.

Records suggest that both State Farm and Maricopa County sheriff's detectives had continued to suspect the Johnsons until the case took its most unexpected turn.

More recently, State Farm doled out another $250,000 to the Johnsons, the result of a March 2010 judgment in a breach-of-contract/bad-faith lawsuit that the couple filed in 2006.

That came after State Farm countersued the couple for fraud and sought reimbursement of about $850,000 in claim payments and other payouts.

The failed State Farm countersuit led in June to yet another lawsuit by the Johnsons against the insurer, to be heard in Maricopa County Superior Court.

The 911 calls flooded in just after 6 on the morning of December 20, 2003. A big house in north Peoria was engulfed in flames.

Next door, Phoenix firefighter Pat Bolley had just risen for work. According to police reports and court documents, Bolley said he smelled smoke, looked around his own residence, and then stepped outside.

The Johnsons' home was engulfed in flames.

Firefighters from several agencies responded quickly, but the blaze was so powerful that they could only work it defensively. Thankfully, no one was injured.

It was a Saturday, and the Johnsons were planning to work on the house later that morning. They and their daughters hoped to move in within weeks.

A friend called them about the fire.

"I was in a fog after that," Betty Johnson says.

The two drove to North 87th Avenue, about eight miles away, and were overwhelmed by what they saw.

"Bad," Mike Johnson recalls. "It was bad."

The home's address is listed as Peoria, but it sits in a county island, so the case fell under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff's Office.

Deputy Jim Oliver got to the scene shortly before 7 a.m. and first spoke with some of the neighbors. A woman told him she had sold the property to the Johnsons, to the dismay of the Bolley family next door.

The Johnsons had started construction about 2½ years earlier, and the woman told the deputy there were "several incidents of the Bolleys' coming outside to harass the Johnsons, when they showed up to work on the house. "

Someone wisely asked the distraught Johnsons to sit in an ambulance, and that is where Oliver spoke with them. He wrote that the couple was "obviously devastated" and in tears.

Betty Johnson said she had called the Phoenix Fire Department months earlier to complain about the ugly situation with the Bolleys. But the couple claimed to have no idea who would have torched the place, if it were arson.

Deputy Oliver spoke with another neighbor, Kent Arnold, yet another Phoenix firefighter, who also knew about the troubles between the Johnsons and the Bolleys. He said he had learned from Pat Bolley that the Johnsons allegedly were stiffing subcontractors for work on their new house.

Arnold told the deputy that he had seen Mike Johnson carry several large metal gas cans into the garage about a month earlier.

"He immediately thought to himself, 'Man, I bet that place burns,'" Oliver wrote in a report. "I asked what that meant. He said he thought Mr. Johnson might have money problems, especially with the contractors, so he might burn it down. He also told me, when he heard the dogs barking and got up and saw the fire, 'I got a gut feeling, they burned it down.'"

Sheriff's Detective Jim McCarthy arrived about 9:30 a.m. His task was to determine the cause and origin of the fire, which authorities already saw as suspicious, especially after they learned that the electricity to the house wasn't connected.

Another sheriff's investigator, Phil Dougherty, also spoke with the Johnsons, later writing, "Michael [Johnson] said there was nothing kept at the house to cause it to catch fire."

Mike Johnson tells New Times that he didn't mean there was nothing inside the home. He says he had been referring to flammable items such as gas cans. But that statement and others like it by the Johnsons loomed large in State Farm's eventual conclusion that the couple was grossly exaggerating their personal-property-loss claim.

Pat Bolley had left for work, and the sheriff's detectives wouldn't speak with him for a few days, when Detective Dougherty called the firefighter.

Bolley told Dougherty that the Johnsons were very upset with him for telling subcontractors working on the new home to beware of getting scammed by his future neighbors.

Bolley said he knew Betty had given letters to several subcontractors supposedly written by a BankOne (now Chase) loan officer on bank stationery.

Signed by a "Lillian" (no last name), the letters addressed to Betty Johnson said the bank would not release money to pay the subs because of supposedly shoddy workmanship.

Bolley said he learned from concrete subcontractor and fellow firefighter Robert Brewster that Betty had created the fraudulent letters to avoid paying Brewster and other workers.

On December 29, Detective Dougherty met with Brewster in Peoria. Brewster provided Dougherty with one of the "bank" letters that he said Betty Johnson had given him more than a year earlier.

Brewster said the letters gave the impression that the Johnsons had a construction loan, but BankOne officials told him that no such loan existed.

"Brewster said that the Johnsons basically put him out of business, and he no longer had the concrete company," the detective wrote.

A BankOne official later told Dougherty that there was no loan officer named Lillian. She told the detective that the Johnsons did not have a construction loan or line of credit with the bank.

Still, the official said, the bank didn't consider itself a victim of a fraud.

Within days, State Farm hired private fire investigator Joe Sesniak to explore the likely cause and origin of the blaze.

An internal State Farm "activity log" dated December 29 noted that Sesniak reported to the Special Investigations Unit that he had "learned from the [sheriff's] investigator that [Betty Johnson] is a possible suspect in the [fire] due to her involvement in a prior fraudulent case."

That was an apparent reference to the murky BankOne letters.

Certainly, the spotlight was squarely on the Johnsons. It would not be the first time that financially strapped homeowners, if that's what the Johnsons were, had taken that turn.

And if Betty Johnson had gone to the extreme of inventing a phony bank loan to avoid paying the workers, didn't that suggest a desperate situation?

On December 30, 2003, private fire investigator Sesniak met a team from the Sheriff's Office that included Detective Jim McCarthy at the burned-down house.

As is often the case in arson investigations, police and insurance company personnel worked closely.

Also there were members of a construction firm that specializes in debris removal, and a sheriff's fire-accelerant-sniffing dog, Maxie.

The ashes and rubble went about six feet deep in parts of the basement. It took more than a day to sort through the mess, and then for a crane operator to lift out the debris and place it down carefully in the yard.

The investigators hosed down the cleaned-out basement floor and quickly identified irregular fire patterns indicative of ignitable liquids having been dumped on it.

Maxie alerted his handler, Detective McCarthy, to 23 locations where gasoline had been poured.

As originally suspected, this was arson.

In a 2009 deposition, McCarthy said he and Sesniak found scant signs of any personal property, charred or not, inside the structure, except for some paint cans, a generator in the garage, and a few other items.

Insurance companies usually start working on claims within days after something happens. Someone interviews the insured and inspects any property damage, in a preliminary effort to assess potential liability.

But State Farm did not speak to the Johnsons for almost three months after the fire, an unusually long gap after such a major loss.

The Johnsons' policy covered both structural damage and items inside the home. The structure was totaled. But the issue of what personal things had been in it when it burned would erupt into a war between State Farm and the couple.

On January 6, 2004, State Farm sent the Johnsons a "reservation of rights" letter, putting them on notice that it wouldn't cover certain losses, for example, if it turned out the Johnsons had been the arsonists.

The next day, State Farm special investigator Melissa Bishop heard from Patrick Bolley, the Phoenix firefighter who had gotten crossways with the Johnsons. A transcript of that phone call shows the effort Bolley made to paint the Johnsons as bad guys.

Bolley went on and on about the BankOne letters, saying Robert Brewster's concrete company "wound up going bankrupt because he didn't receive payment from [Betty Johnson]."

Bolley said Brewster and other subcontractors had given him copies of the letters "because they were pretty upset."

Apparently referring to the BankOne letters, Bolley told the investigator, "I guess my gut feeling is, I just don't like to see people get away with doing evil things to people."

Bolley later faxed over copies of some of the letters on official Phoenix Fire stationery.

A few days later, Bolley's neighbor and fellow Phoenix firefighter Kent Arnold called State Farm to repeat his damning story about Mike Johnson's supposedly toting several gas cans into the residence.

Robert Brewster himself contacted State Farm in early February 2004, explaining to investigator Bishop that the Johnsons owed him money. He was wondering whether State Farm could cover the debt.

Bishop told him that the company could not help him. Brewster mentioned the BankOne letters and offered to give an official statement, but State Farm never took him up on it.

The Johnsons had hired a public adjustor to advocate for them (for a percentage of the proceeds) during the insurance-claims process.

The Johnsons and the adjustor, Dave Skipton, finally met with State Farm's Melissa Bishop in early March 2004.

Skipton says he had tried to convince State Farm that the Johnsons were not dirty.

"They just were convinced that their insured [the Johnsons] were the arsonists, and it definitely affected the way they were handling the claim," he tells New Times.

"I told them, 'Are you serious? This was their dream house. These people saved, paid cash, built it themselves, no mortgage, were way underinsured, were three weeks away from moving in, and so on. What incentive could they possibly have had to burn it down?"

Investigator Bishop asked the couple at the recorded interview, "You had nothing in the basement other than the paint?"

"No, just the paint," Mike Johnson replied, a similar statement to what he had told sheriff's detectives as his house burned.

But Betty Johnson told Bishop that they had been moving their stuff over to the new home for weeks. She mentioned five combo TV/DVD/VCRs (Christmas presents for each of their daughters), beds, clothing, mattresses, family keepsakes, exercise equipment, computers, and other belongings.

Betty said she and Mike, with the occasional help of friends, had stowed many items in the basement. (Some of those friends later corroborated her statement. Judy Moore, a fellow school volunteer with Betty, told another State Farm investigator that she had seen a big-screen TV in the living room and unopened boxes in each of the girls' rooms that supposedly held the TV/DVD/VCR units.)

Fire investigator Sesniak already had told Melissa Bishop that very few remnants of personal property had emerged from the rubble, which led him (and Detective McCarthy) to conclude that the house had been practically empty.

But Bishop didn't confront the Johnsons about that.

Instead, the State Farm investigator asked them, "Did you start the fire?"


"Did you have anyone else start the fire?"


In order, the Johnsons listed three people whom they suspected of arson — neighbor Pat Bolley, concrete man Robert Brewster, and an ex-boyfriend of their oldest daughter.

Betty Johnson conceded that she had not paid Brewster about $10,000 of their bill from him, because he had allegedly cost them money and time by making critical construction errors.

Melissa Bishop never did raise the issue of the BankOne letters, later telling the Johnsons' attorney that the peculiar letters didn't matter in the handling of the insurance claim.

State Farm's attorneys would disagree, arguing that the letters demonstrated that Betty Johnson was fully capable of committing fraud and exaggerated the extent of what personal property had burned up in the fire.

Mike Johnson told Bishop that he hoped everything would soon be resolved.

"They always say, 'You're in good hands,'" he told the State Farm investigator.

"That's Allstate," she corrected him. "We're the 'good neighbors.'"

State Farm investigators didn't believe Betty Johnson's claim of having a significant amount of personal property at her burned-down house.

Could they have been right?

Sure, and there still was a way, after the Johnsons' March 2004 interview with Melissa Bishop, to confirm their suspicions.

Though months had passed, the burned-up rubble still was piled up in the Johnsons' yard. An analysis of it by State Farm after the March 2004 interview would have seemed the obvious next move.

Instead, in mid-April 2004, State Farm hired a firm to clear the debris off the Johnsons' property and cart it to the dump.

Later, investigator Bishop conceded that "the fire debris may have been evidence of what the contents in the home were before the house burned [and State Farm should have] had somebody sift through every single square inch of that property and look specifically to try to catalog items."

The latter never happened.

That month, unknown to the Johnsons or to State Farm, the unsolved arson case was about to break wide open, with a wild turn no one could have predicted.

On April 14, 2004, a Peoria police detective reported to his peers at the Sheriff's Office that a woman had called him with an intriguing tale.

She said her boyfriend was in jail and wanted to talk to the cops about a fire in Peoria some months earlier.

The detective already had met with the inmate, Brian Cappe, and learned this: Three Phoenix firefighters — Darryl Lanning, Joe Avey, and Chris Bishop — allegedly set a fire at a big home about a week before the previous Christmas.

A week later, sheriff's detectives Dougherty and McCarthy videotaped their own interview with Cappe.

He said he knew Darryl Lanning and was repairing the firefighter's car on a weekend night shortly before Christmas. Lanning had asked if he could borrow Cappe's police scanner, and the pair met at a gas station in west Phoenix. Cappe said Lanning grabbed a gas can out of a car trunk, and Cappe asked him what was up.

"Dirty deeds," he said Lanning replied.

Lanning asked Cappe if he wanted to make some extra money that night, but Cappe had other plans. Before leaving, he filled up another gas can and introduced Cappe to another firefighter, Chris Bishop.

The next morning around sunrise, Cappe said, Lanning, Bishop, and another firefighter, Joe Avey, showed up unexpectedly at his home.

Cappe said the three were high on meth and talkative. He said he learned that morning and in subsequent conversations with Lanning that they had torched a house for a subcontractor who hadn't been paid for his work there.

He thought the subcontractor was a Glendale firefighter by the name of Bannister, who also worked construction on the side.

Cappe told the detectives he also was aware that Avey and Lanning had teamed up on insurance and stolen-property scams involving cars, trailers, and other high-dollar items.

In a subsequent interview, Cappe told the detectives he had scribbled down information about those involved in the fire before he was jailed for violating probation for theft and forgery.

Cappe's girlfriend found the handwritten note and got it to authorities.

It turns out that "Bannister" actually was "Brewster," and "Glendale" was "Peoria," but Cappe's account was bearing up.

On May 17, 2004, sheriff's deputies served a search warrant at Darryl Lanning's home, where they recovered what they suspected was stolen property.

Lanning was taken into custody, and consented to an interview with detectives. The ex-Marine said he had resigned from Phoenix Fire a few months earlier because of his longtime meth addiction.

Lanning said his best buddies were Avey and Bishop, his former colleagues at Station 18.

Lanning soon confessed to his direct role in burning down the Johnsons' home — for $250.

He said he had broken into the place with Avey and that Bishop had been the lookout and getaway driver.

The ringleader, according to Lanning (and years later, Avey), was Robert Brewster, a pal of Avey's who worked at Peoria Fire.

Lanning agreed to call Avey at Station 18 with detectives listening in; he told his pal on tape about the search warrant for the stolen property. Lanning said he was worried something was going to come up about the fire.

"Don't say one word," onetime Army Ranger Avey told him.

As the two men spoke, sheriff's deputies prepared to swoop into the fire station at 23rd Avenue and Camelback. They soon arrested Avey and Bishop without incident.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio's public relations squad had tipped off favored media to the unique situation, and the cameras rolled as the handcuffed firefighters (their Phoenix Fire T-shirts turned inside out) were led to the county jail in downtown Phoenix.

Neither man would speak with detectives. Their mug shots, which were plastered all over the local news, made them look more like street thugs than men sworn to protect and save citizens from fire and other dangers.

The detectives went to Brewster's home in Peoria but did not arrest him, asking only to speak with him.

Brewster said it was "no secret to anybody . . . the passion I had behind it — losing my money [to the Johnsons]. I talked to my extended family at the Fire Department about it, and everybody knows the story. I got screwed, and I moved on with my life."

Brewster claimed not to know why anyone was implicating him. He said he did not recall speaking with the arson suspects immediately before or after the fire.

Actually, records show that Brewster and Avey spoke by cell phone about four hours before the December 20 fire and, again, hours afterward.

"I had nothing to do with this. So if you're accusing me of it?" Brewster said, ending the interview by asking for an attorney.

Veteran Phoenix firefighters accused of turning into arsonists was a big story. Sheriff Arpaio called a press conference, at which he strongly suggested that more arrests were forthcoming.

Peoria Fire suspended Brewster with pay pending the results of an internal investigation.

That day, State Farm sent a letter to the Johnsons revoking its earlier "reservation of rights" warning notice, later noting in an internal memo, "We no longer had a question of whether or not they set the fire."

But, privately, the insurer still the couple's personal property claim, the precise extent of which still was uncertain.

State Farm issued a check for $554,000 soon after the arrests to cover the alleged replacement value of the home itself and some temporary living costs (minus a $2,000 deductible).

"State Farm couldn't wait to pay that, after holding out for months, because they were so sure the Johnsons were the arsonists," public adjustor Dave Skipton says. "It was [the company's] way of saying, 'Please don't sue us for bad faith.'"

Any good feelings that the Johnsons may have had were short-lived.

Sheriff's Detective Phil Dougherty told Betty Johnson by phone within hours of the arrests that he still needed to talk to her about those BankOne letters.

A few days later, Betty says, she informed Dougherty that a TV reporter had knocked on her door to ask about the letters, which she says the reporter claimed to have seen.

Dougherty's police report said that Betty told him during the call that she had been approached in 2002 by "Lillian," who said she worked as a loan officer for BankOne (supposedly producing business cards to prove it).

"Lillian" wanted Betty to privately invest money in a side deal with her, but Betty told Dougherty she never did. Betty claimed that the mysterious woman helped her compose the phony "construction loan" letters on bank stationery, which Betty in turn delivered to four subcontractors, including Robert Brewster.

It sounds dubious.

But Betty Johnson's oldest child, Summer, says she recalls a well-dressed woman named Lillian coming by the house to speak privately with her mother.

"She was a real person," says Summer, now a mother of three and wife of a Phoenix police officer. "My mom would not make something like that up."

Betty tells New Times that "Lillian" disappeared for good in the fall of 2002 after Robert Brewster filed a complaint with a sheriff's deputy. A sheriff's "field report" shows that the deputy came by the Johnsons' home to sort things out and then chalked up the dispute between Brewster and the Johnsons as a civil matter.

"When I confronted Lillian after the deputy came by, that was it — never saw her again," Betty says. "I made a big mistake by dealing with her. But it wasn't like we didn't pay people. We just didn't pay Brewster any more money because he didn't make his wrongs right on the job."

Court and other records show that none of the Johnsons' subcontractors, including Brewster, filed lawsuits, liens, or other public complaints against the Johnsons.

Sheriff's deputies served a search warrant on the Johnsons' home within hours of Betty's speaking with Detective Dougherty. Among other items, investigators seized two of the couple's computers and BankOne stationery.

Betty says another reporter contacted her shortly after the raid, saying Joe Arpaio was having another press conference the next day.

She gathered some girlfriends and drove to the sheriff's downtown Phoenix headquarters, apparently talking her way in by announcing herself as "the victim."

Betty recalls, "The sheriff was up there blowing smoke. He's talking about more arrests coming and so on. Someone in the media recognizes me and lets him know who I am. [Arpaio] was ticked! [He says,] 'What are you doing here?' This is my press conference!'"

A headline in the following day's Arizona Republic read, "Investigation in Arson Taking in Homeowners."

It noted the search of the Johnsons' home and that "the web of firefighters, contractors, and homeowners" had begun to unravel.

It sounded like quite the conspiracy, especially in light of the fact that the Johnsons didn't know any of the arrested Phoenix firefighters.

That would be the last story published about the case for years.

Sheriff's detectives wanted to charge Betty Johnson with committing fraud with the BankOne letters, but county prosecutors would not cooperate.

They also did not seek a grand jury indictment against Robert Brewster, who was allowed back on his Peoria fire truck about four months after his alleged cohorts were arrested.

The criminal case against the Phoenix firefighters soon fell into limbo: For unknown reasons, prosecutors "scratched " the charges against the trio shortly after the high-profile arrests, which meant they wanted further investigation to justify the filing of formal charges.

The three were released from custody. Avey soon resigned from Phoenix Fire, and Bishop remained on administrative leave (Lanning already had quit).

That July, the Johnsons sued their State Farm insurance agent for allegedly underinsuring the burned-up home on North 87th Drive.

The following month, their adjustor, Skipton, finally submitted a personal-property inventory to the insurer — a staggering claim of $238,000 in fire losses covering hundreds of belongings that included a 60-inch TV, leather couches, a pool table, and a pinball machine.

Though State Farm investigators were highly dubious, company claims adjustors moved the case along.

Claims section manager Debbie Smith wrote that "due to the extent of damage, there was only fine unidentifiable debris in the basement."

That comports with what Patrick Andler, the Johnsons' fire expert in the subsequent lawsuit against State Farm, later concluded. Andler said temperatures in the fire exceeded 1,200 degrees and probably consumed whatever combustible products were in the home.

State Farm, in October 2004, paid the Johnsons' about $41,000 of the requested $238,000, leaving the rest of the claim unresolved.

Also that month, as if this case needed another twist, water pipes burst at the Johnsons' residence, the home they remained in because of the fire.

They said the damage by the flood ruined thousands of dollars of new personal property they had bought in the fire's aftermath.

But State Farm investigators suspected that at least some of the water-ruined items were the same as those the Johnsons claimed had burned up in the fire.

If true, that would be felony insurance fraud. But, again, proof was lacking.

In early 2005, another State Farm special investigator, Lisa Grant, picked up the Johnsons' file — the fire and the water claims.

Within just a few days, Grant asked the Arizona Department of Insurance to consider the Johnsons for criminal prosecution on fraud charges.

But a state investigator concluded that the information from State Farm "did not establish a basis to allege that criminal fraud had occurred."

Again thwarted, State Farm decided in mid-2005 to question the Johnsons in an "examination under oath," a tool used by insurers to grill their customers in contested claims cases.

Betty Johnson told an attorney for the insurer about the aftermath of the fire, "It was a very devastating time, so it was very hard to remember everything that I'd been packing up over the months before."

Nothing she said swayed State Farm, which decided internally to deny the rest of the Johnsons' personal-property claim for losses in the fire.

Also, the insurer still had not done anything about the couple's flood claim, another sum of about $40,000.

Then, in late 2005, State Farm tried to pull a fast one.

The Johnsons' insurance agent agreed to settle his lawsuit — the one that accused him of negligently underinsuring the couple — for $5,000.

State Farm sent that amount to the couple but also included a "general release" document with the other paperwork.

By signing it, the Johnsons would have released State Farm from "all liability whatsoever," including pending personal-property claims and future lawsuits that the couple might file against the company.

The Johnsons' current attorney, Steve Silverman, recently told a judge of State Farm's gambit: "At the base of it, it was a heavy-handed tactic that said, 'Take it, or we're going to bury you further.'"

Betty and Mike Johnson declined to sign the document.

The County Attorney's Office had not forgotten its stalled criminal case against the firefighters.

In November 2005, a grand jury indicted Darryl Lanning on arson and other felonies unrelated to the Johnson case, including helping torch two of his pal Joe Avey's vehicles for insurance money.

Lanning pleaded guilty to arson in March 2006 and agreed to testify against his former firefighter buddies if it came to that.

Indictments against Joe Avey and Chris Bishop followed. Like Lanning, Avey also faced several felonies other than breaking into and burning down the Johnsons' home.

Chris Bishop, too, was facing charges of arson and burglary, though no evidence suggested that he had served as anything more than the getaway driver.

Bishop went on trial in February 2008, with Darryl Lanning as the first prosecution witness.

The irony that Robert Brewster, the alleged architect of the arson plot, was getting off scot-free as Bishop faced prison time did not escape trial observers, including Betty Johnson.

Chris Bishop's trial ended with his acquittal.

Joe Avey pleaded guilty to arson a few months later.

In May 2008, Lanning and Avey each was sentenced to three years in prison. Lanning already had served most of that time in jail and was released from prison a few months later.

Avey was released last August.

State Farm's sneaky "general release" ploy had failed and, in April 2006, the company paid the Johnsons about $38,000 to cover losses claimed in the house flood.

But the company officially denied the rest of the Johnsons' claim for the property allegedly lost in the fire — by then more than $200,000.

That led the Johnsons in May 2006 to sue State Farm for bad faith and breach of contract.

State Farm responded by countersuing the couple for fraud and asking for all of its money back — more than $800,000 in all.

State Farm has very deep pockets and can wear down litigants over time. But the Johnsons stayed the course and, last March, accepted a $250,000 "offer of judgment" from State Farm, akin to a settlement.

The judgment deals with what happened before the Johnsons filed the May 2006 lawsuit against State Farm.

That didn't end matters in this protracted case. In June, the Johnsons filed a new lawsuit against State Farm, claiming, among other things, that the company had abused the legal process by filing its countersuit.

The Johnsons contend that the company tried to intimidate and ruin them financially with the countersuit, while knowing it owed the couple tens of thousands of dollars in personal-property claims.

"They're not a good neighbor," Betty Johnson says.

Onetime arson suspect Chris Bishop got his job back at Phoenix Fire after his acquittal and worked there until last April.

Then, on April 7, the divorced father of three stepped into his garage and hanged himself. In a long suicide note, Bishop took pains not to blame his agency, or anybody else, for his demise.

As for Robert Brewster, his reborn career at Peoria Fire seems to be going well.

The big guy does a good Santa Claus: A 2009 city newsletter described him as having "a jolly good time handing out candy canes and posing for holiday photographs on the picture-perfect December morning."

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Connie Hudison
Connie Hudison

My family feels your pain more than you know. We are going through a very similar situation now, involving our neighbors. We have no protection from law enforcement or the State Fire Department Agency. They have become as big a problem as our neighbor's to the point that we are in fear of living in our home for the past 3 years, yet still paying a mortgage. Our home was also underinsured with no living expenses on our policy. This is due to previous arsons on our property. Law enforcement agencies are condoning arson's in our neighborhood for the past 15 years. Now, how could you not catch an arsonist after 15 years?!!!! They admitted to my family and friends they know who the perpetrator's are but refuse to do anything about them. What they did do was arrest the homeowner for Arson/Insurance Fruad!! My family has incurred extensive monetary loss, emotional stress, our character is defamed and slandered. Our name has a "black mark" all over it according the the law. The criminal charges were eventually dropped. We than called the States Attorney's office asking to schedule an appointment to talk with them and show them evidence of who the arsonist is. We were denied an appointment. We have no option now but to pursue lawsuit ourselves. This "BLACK MARK" on our families credibility cleared. JUSTICE WILL BE SERVED....NO ONE IS ABOVE THE LAW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Wow! Quite a stumbling block State Farm has built themselves on. When the Johnson's win their case State Farm is going to fall really hard as no one will have faith in their already lost integrity.


i hope these people finally got ot rebuild their home and are enjoying it. they sure deserve it after all the hassle ~


they screwed my daughter around for about a year over repairs to her car after being hit by someone insured by them. they allegedly "lost" the paperwork my daughter had sent in 3 times but i got in an ornery mood one day and got the name and number of the one handling the claim and "mysteriously" when my daughter called them "they didnt need the paperwork anymore theyd been jerkin her around for a year over 2000 whats so wierd is i called my agent and she helped me get the thing striaghtened out ive dealt with them before theyre jerks. this guy backed up into my 76 triumph tr7 with a pick up and when i demanded that the front bumper cover be replaced this jack**f body shop guy called em and toldem it should be totaled . so i had a go round with there agent and before it was done i got the 700 it cost to fix it and kept the car. got it fixed and went back to the body shop guy who tried to screw me to show em what nice job ANOTHER body shop did fixing it.


This family is my relation and I know that what they have gone thru can not be replaced by money this is a very loving family with 5 daughters who are going to remember what State Farm did to their parents The whole thing is upsetting firefighters who are crooks state farm being bullys and knowing what happened all the time. But God takes care of his children and he will take care of this family.I love you Cuz and do not ever let them beat you down So [roud of you for standing tall I know it has been a long hard 7 yearsYour Cuz Mark


I used to work for Snake Farm Insurance. One day back in 1999 i simply had enough of their BS and walked out and went to work for USAA insurance. I have never looked back. If you want professional insurance choose the best...USAA.


The home was 'underinsured by a company agent'? These people were building their entire house on their own and did not know a proper replacement cost? They tried to skimp on insurance and lost the gamble. Suing for more money raises the rates for everybody. Thanks for that.

Lili Lin
Lili Lin

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I've never been a consumer that is swayed by celebrities to go with one company or another, I'm not one that says well since Tiger Woods had a moral judgement failure and is tied to Nike I will not buy their product, I really could care less what celebrities do and in no shape or form is their behavior tied to the companies reputation. Where I do pay attention is when a giant of a company like State Farm goes after their customers like in this situation. I have been with State Farm for over 10+ yrs and let me tell you reading this story is really making me consider pulling ALL my business from the company. I hope that it was just a few rogue employees and NOT an indication of how the company treats their customers, because afterall its because of those customers that they are in business.


In answer to the letters. It was a letter typed by Lilian from Bank one. All the letter was was an accounting letter. Amount paid, date, contractor name etc.. She set it up in Mrs. Johnson computer while at her home talking bank investments. She told Mrs. Johnson she should always send that letter with her payment to the contractors. Beings the checks were coming from Bank One, Mrs. Johnson didn't see any sort of fraud being done, after all it was her banker telling her to do this. She was even nice enough to leave letter head with her. When Mrs. Johnson got a call that she was being accused of bank fraud, she called Lilian, only to find she doesn't exist. And the number on her business card was a non working number. Obviously this all got cleared up or she would of been charged with bank fraud. The letter was in no way of any harm to the bank itself. They filed no charges. If you can't smell "frame"...then you need your nostrils checked.



Swift2, Don't get too upset about what is being posted here. Many of these posts are from other firefighters and policemen that are in the same side business as the ones just convicted. This is their way of providing cover for their pals. What's scary is these are the people that we are paying with our taxes to protect us.


Firefighters in the Phoenix Metro area have been doing "Contractor Sidework" for years using their credentials as firefighters to land lucrative construction jobs. They then pursuade homeowners to use other firefighter contractors for additional work. Most of them don't have the experience background to get a licence from the Registrar of Contractors but that doesn't stop them because the Registrar doesn't check their experience records. This story is just the tip of the iceberg on what has been going on in Phoenix Metro for years in regards to Firefighters operating construction companies on the side. Owner/Builders BEWARE if a contractor shows up at your doorstep with a Firefighters Sticker on their window or a Firefighter Plate on their vehicle you would be well advised to look to professional contractors that do it on a full time basis.



Court and other records show that none of the Johnsons' subcontractors, including Brewster, filed lawsuits, liens, or other public complaints against the Johnsons. TOP OF PAGE 5 PEOPLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


I want to hear more about these so called fraudulent letters. The ones from BankOne. Ya, these Firefighters took steps that ruined a families dreams, but I think this story has so many twists and turns that it could be a book and if written with certain words, could make either side look bad.

What if these guys were not Firefighters, would it have gotten the same attention? What if they hired a contractor who wasn't a firefighter, would this have even made the media? Probably not. We as Americans hold Firefighters to a higher standard, of which we should, but it plays a huge roll in this story.

Did she actually give letters to this Brewster guy that were allegedly from BankOne? Apparently she did as she addressed the fact of some woman claiming to be from BankOne and wanting her to invest in something. If she did this, than yes, that is wrong and fraudulent. Does it rise to the level of a serious crime or anything close to the level of having their home burnt? No, but it would be morally wrong. This is why I would have liked to hear more about it.

Also, I think we should hear more about any lawsuits filed by Brewster against the family, if there were any, in order to claim his due monies. If he did file some sort of suit, and lost, why? This would go a long way with explaining the work he did and if it was up to par or if he had any money due to him.

Of course I am a very detail orientated person and always want to hear all the story and read all the evidence and reports and examine all the theories, suggestions, facts and use that to come to my own opinion. I also understand how doing that in this situation (for the purpose of a New Times story) would make the article way to long to read for a publication like this. That being said, I enjoyed it but it did leave me with a lot of unanswered questions. I do agree that State farm committed some forms of bad faith, but don't blame them for their initial concerns.


The majority think the Johnson's are corrupt? And in which way are they corrupt? What did they do? Oh and please don't be ignorant as the others by saying "they didn't pay the contractors", if you do, you must go back and read the story again, you forgot a page.

As for the "swift2" must be a family member..guess again. Just like your "guessing" comment below, \ I am NOT a family member. I am a very long time family friend. I have known this family for years, I know their Character. And I have every right to comment on ANY negative comments attacking my very close friends or comment on any possitive. If you read closely there is a "reply" tab just for that purpose. If YOU have a problem with me remarking about negative comments such as yours, then don't post, but don't expect me to not defend myself and my comments or replys. I have not been foul, but I have been defensive and have every right with stupidity, that's why they have a reply tab :) Isn't freedom of speech a wonderful thing :)


I have been close friend with the Johnson's since 1987. Close neighbors for 10 of those years. I have always known them to be honest HARD working people. They run their own business, being self employed. They don't and haven't asked for handout during this whole ordeal, have never asked any of their friends for any financial help. This isn't over yet, and even though from the article it seems like they have gotten some monies, they had to catch up on every day living because of the fire and the flood. Daily living, attorney fees, and major expenses from their expert witnesses. I know that the last 7 years have been pure HELL for the Johnson's. Having your name and integrity dragged through the mud. THEY are the victims here. Having your home destroyed just days before moving in/Christmas. They are lucky to have lived to tell the tell. I hope this spreads virally so that people know how State Farm really treats it's clients. I know that (swift2) is a close family friend also and NOT a member of the Johnson Family


That's where I work and love it there


You don't "chose" your price of home owners insurance. They have formulas used for figuring the right amounts of coverage. Based on sq ft. etc.. Why do you think they have adjusters? That is the job of the agent to make sure you are covered for the appropriate amounts, that's why you hire them, once the contract amount is figured the clients sign...they were never given anything to sign.... And the agent knows he underinsured that was already established. Moving along.


This is not the first incident I've heard of involving State Farm, but it is definitely the worst!


In this case, you would be shocked at the evidence regarding who is involved when it comes to state farm. You should read what former State farm employees have said about the very company they worked for in prior cases.

May I also add, (I wont say names) I know an agent that has been selling State farm for years and he even had to hire an attorney because State Farm was jerking around their very own on paying medical bills. Did they pay them, yes, after he had to go through fighting the very own people he puts the almighty dollar in the pockets of with an attorney. Sad. No, its not even sad, thats down right pathetic.

Some one posted down below a few links on State Farms "good neighbor ethics", if you get a chance you might read them.

Kit Carson
Kit Carson


Before there was as fire, before there was a dispute about what was destroyed in that fire, the bank and the insurance company sought out to "frame" the good family because ... why?

Rather than run around whining that anyone who disagrees with you must be a member of the police or fire departments, or worse is an idiot, you really need to take a moment to think clearly about what you are writing.

Just because she tried to scam people with the bank letter does not make her an arsonist, but apologist such as you, with your "say-anything" approach to trying to clear her just make her look worse, not better.

You make supporting her seem like the position of a weak mind, at best, and a liar, at worst.

If I had no opinion, and read your posts, I'd be opposite her pretty quick. Heck, I don't think she engaged in arson, and I'm intellectually offended by your posts.

So ask yourself, you want to make it better or worse for your beloved Mrs. Johnson?


Thank Svx. I appreciate your comments. Im not mad though, just frustrated at the stupidity of people.


What's the whole story on the BankOne letters? Was she convinced by someone that they were legit to send, or did she make them herself and send them hoping it would get repairs done?

Also, do they plan on rebuilding? With the money they got, and the current state of the economy, I'm sure they could rebuild. There are plenty of legit contractors that would work for way less than there old rates. Trust me, I know as I have had work done...


We feel like family though huh Nan :)


Mr. Pot,

1. Who said the bank themselves were out to "frame" them? They knew they were scammed and the Johnson to this day still bank with them. Someone portraying themselves as a bank one employee "scammed" them. Who said state farm was out to "frame" them? they just used this unfortunate situation against them in the dirtiest way they could.

2. There is a difference between whining and defending. Look both words up in the dictionary.

3. If you can't see through your rose colored glass that they were victims of bank fraud and not the ones acting as frauds, then you sir have a very weak mind "at best".

4. I could never make anything worse for "my beloved Mrs. Johnson" she has been through hell as well as her whole family in the past 7-8 yrs. A hell you have no comprehension of. A debate session (if you could call this that) is hardly harmful to the facts in black and white.

But I see you are still "whining", or are you merely defending "your" comments?

Ms. Kettle


Did a little checking into Mr. Kit. Your in every story bashing someone if not the writer someone that has commented. Doesn't surprise me.


And obviously you wish to "whine" as well or you wouldn't be responding to MY comments. A bit of the pot calling the kettle black don't you think?

You "THINK" she didn't engage in arson? lol Not even going to waste my time on that comment. You are obviously having an issue with the truth as most narrow minded people do.

How is a letter showing the amount and date of an enclosed check scamming people? Scamming them of what?

I find it interesting that YOU find them fraudulent or as you put it "scammers", when not even the bank filed or pursued Mrs. Johnson in this matter.

You would need to understand the time lines of the "dispute", "bank letter", "fire", "state farm". Again, you don't know the whole story (or do you?) and New Times threw out bits an pieces. I believe you made comments to the writer as well? Seems you have very strong issues with this story, I wonder why????? ;)


"Frustrated by the stupidity"

Hey - common ground. That's how we feel reading your shit.


Seems like everyone involved was up to some sort of fraud in some way. Of course, the ones who did the Arson were the top of the idiot list, and State Farm, although had a right to investigate, really went to far and tied up more money in lawsuits than they should have.

It wasn't a win or ethical for anyone involved. Maybe next time everyone (well State Farm won't because they are just to big) will think about their actions before the do something next time.

Kit Carson
Kit Carson

Let me guess - you think alligators live in the sewers ... you're just batshitcrazy, unable to come up with intelligent argument you pathetically resort to conspiracy theories.


Let me guess-- you are a lame ass cheating scamming fireman too aren't you? What a crock of crap --if you ask me that Bolley and Arnold guy were probably in on it too. Typical firemen--defending each other even when they know their "brother" is a scum bag or as in this case , an arsonist.

Kit Carson
Kit Carson

Given your post is replete with grammar errors, I think pot, is a great way of responding to your accusation of "very weak mind, at best." Indeed, you have one tell that assures me you never graduated from college (or at least not a very good one.)

You're rude and non-persuasive. You are making things worse. The more people read your feeble efforts the more they are likely to think there must be some fire behind the smoke you're laying down.

Only a weak mind would accept the story of the mysterious banker who shows up, drops off some corporate stationary, shows how that can be used to fraudulently convey that contractors are being paid from fictitious improvement loams and then disappears into the night.

It lacks even the hint of plausibility.

It was a scam - and by harping on it all you are doing is reminding us how the Johnson's are capable of bad acts.

We all have flaws and we all make bad decisions (like you posting here) and sometimes those decisions make us susceptible to wrongful accusations.

That's the real moral here: don't scam on the small stuff because it hurts your credibility about the big stuff.

But, perhaps I do have a weak mind. After all, I don't think the Johnson's torched their own home, nor do I think they were treated fairly by the police or the insurance company.

For some bizarre reason that my weak mind cannot comprehend, you seem to want to fight over that conclusion, though it seems to mirror your own.

Don't you think it's better to keep your allies than to alienate them?


You, too, think you're crazy?


Well if that don't beat all, you and I have something in common. :)

Kit Carson
Kit Carson

Feeling hyperbolic this morning, are you?

But point well taken - I don't suffer fools well, as you are now experiencing.


All I see is some rude, ignorant jerk who claims to be a friend of the family writing a bunch of lies. If you're cool with that, then, hey, give her all the support you can.

I like it when liars are shot down, so I'm cool with this biatch getting the pimp hand.

Kit Carson
Kit Carson

Big words? Only if you didn't made it past sixth grade.

Kit Carson
Kit Carson

Read above - I don't suffer fools well. Swift2 is either a fool or a liar, I'm just trying to determine which.


Kit, the only thing I see you doing in here is bashing some friend of the family. Stick to the story line. Whether Swift2 is right or wrong who cares. No fire fighter has the right to burn down a families home, I don't care what they did. And you have done nothing but make yourself look like a pompous asshole with all your big words. Your the last person in the blogging that should be giving anyone advise.


You know what is just crazy? You're asking Swift2 to stop commenting, but yet you just blaze on trying to engage further in a debate. Clearly, you don't know the parties involved personally... Swift2 is just defending someone they care about. What's your excuse?

Kit Carson
Kit Carson

"Under our signature" is a common business expression for "send it out as if it came from us and it will have our full authority and weight."

It does not literally mean "sign my name."

You don't know something so basic, but you do know all the intricacies of the law of fraud and arson? Really? You want us to trust your analysis of the larger issues when you can't even get the small ones right?

Kit Carson
Kit Carson

Talk about weak minds - someone disagrees with you so they must be part of a larger conspiracy. Yea, I'm the one that wrote the Johnsons were victims of arson, who thinks Brewster should have used the courts if he felt he was shorted and who expressed delight that the meth-heads who actually did the torching (for reasons unknown or unproven) were convicted.

So, then, what side am I on?

Before you go all tin-foil head on everyone, do you even bother to think it just may be an honest disagreement based on the limited facts presented in somewhat sloppily written article?

Kit Carson
Kit Carson

No one is defending the firefighters, so there is no one to castigate for lapses in logic or cogent thought.

Your naked declarations that this kind of fraud happen all the time stands in stark contrast to what I know to be true as a lawyer.

This is another example of how you are hurting the cause - when you just make shit up that thinks sounds persuasive, it just makes you sound like someone who will lie or say anything to get out of a jam - even one as petty as an Internet discussion.

If you'll lie here, where else will you lie and what else have you lied about in other posts?


While your in the dictionary, look up hard head.

The bank employees that know the Johnsons were very kind to them. They see this sort of "fraud" all the time. Johnson's are hardly the first family this has happen too. But you wouldn't know that unless you had all the facts Mr. Kit. The bank finds the Johnson's victims of fraud not the other way around. THAT is why it was never "legally" prosecuted.

You spend more time attacking the Johnson for a letter and myself for defending them on stupidity such as yours, than you do fire fighters burning down a home. Or an Insurance co.'s bad faith and wrong doings. Your childish like ways of getting upset at the Johnson's over what a friend says shows your character as well. That is simply a case of narrow mindedness.


You just proved to me everything I suspected. How you know things that were not even in this story is enough to tell me everything about yourself. Look at the letter again, there is no signature.

Kit Carson
Kit Carson

Two wrongs make a right? I'm not here to defend Brewster. As I wrote, he should have gone to the courts if he felt he was wronged.

Only a fool or a liar would try to rehabilitate the tarnished reputation of one scammer by point fingers at another.

You're just making it worse.

Kit Carson
Kit Carson

Some advice for Swift2: When you find yourself in a ditch, quit digging.

My post directly answered yours - I find it unfuckingbelievable that anyone with an IQ over 70 would claim that the Bank Letter was a frame job IN ADVANCE of the fire.

If the Johnson's are as nice and as smart as you claim, then they had to know a bank doesn't just show up with letterhead and say "Here, have some, send it out under our signature."

Your claim is incredulous.

Yes, I don't think she is an arsonist. That's the only side I logically can take, as you note, I don't have all the facts. Because you're so full of hate and bile you take exception even with those who agree with you.

The word I used was scam - and that is exactly what she tried to do. It may not have been prosecuted as an illegal scam, but it certainly was a scam. Let's go to the dictionary:

SCAM: fraud or confidence trick.

The letters were fraudulent. Period. They did not originate with from the Bank. She used those fraudulent letters in the course of her business negotiations. She is a scammer - just not likely one that is also an arsonist.

With every post you hurt the Johnson's case. As someone who thinks they were treated very poorly, and who is happy the meth heads who confessed got convicted, I wish you would stop because you're making me wonder about them - after all, what does it say about them that they have friends like you?


And don't forget, with documentation of PROOF that Brewster was paid for his shotty work, why didn't he pay his fellow co workers (fire fighters) with any of that money instead of "lieing" to them that he never got a dime? And the Johnson's are scammers? ok.

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